First of all, winter vegetables are basically the same varieties we grow in spring, summer and fall. The only difference is these specific varieties are bred to grow vegetatively in hot weather and to mature in cool weather. The vegetables I am referring to are meant to be sown now for harvesting anywhere from December through April.
This month wise gardeners, who work in very sandy, well-drained soils and who use a little protective mulching, will be seeding special varieties of beets, carrots, parsnips, turnips and even onions for terrific late fall and winter crops. Unless a very severe cold spell turns them to mush,these late crops are a real treat and believe me, their flavour is terrific. Even with the -25°C temperatures last winter with no snow cover, all our vegetables came through. All I did was throw a little Remay cloth on top of them.
One of the most popular winter vegetables for the home garden is cauliflower. There are several excellent European varieties, but 'Purple Cape' and ‘Galleon’ seem to be two of the best. Seeded now, these plants will grow and mature very quickly, reaching a fair size by mid-October when the tiny heads will begin to form. If you plant them much earlier, the plants become too lush and vegetative and as a result, they can be badly damaged by heavy winter frosts. Seeded too late, they never seem to develop far enough to produce good-sized heads, so timing is everything. You may want to do a little experimentation, but mid to late July is the best time to seed for success.
The same is true for winter broccoli. The purple-sprouting varieties have become the most popular, but check out the white-sprouting varieties for comparison.
It seems unlikely that cabbage plants could overwinter, but the English variety ‘January King’ will do just that. Seeded now, it will mature in 200 to 250 days, producing compact three to five pound heads. ‘January King’ will usually finish ‘heading out’ in February and will be ready for harvesting from March through April. It has excellent flavour.
Endive is beginning to catch on as a vegetable in Western Canada, but it's something for which you really have to develop a taste. Most Europeans love it. I suggest you try ‘Neos’ for a new culinary delight.
Chives and leeks (try ‘Bandit’) are always nice to have in the garden to spice up an egg sandwich or a salad, but you can also grow winter onions. If they are planted now, they'll grow up to four inches across by early spring, and their flavour will be mild and sweet.
All the kids who detest spinach will be delighted to know that it too can grow through the winter. From a July sowing, 'Bloomsdale' and 'Perpetual' are varieties which can be harvested from February onward. I've always found that Swiss chard will do much the same, if you harvest before it goes to seed.
While you are planting a selection of these vegetables, don't forget about some beautiful exotic flowering kale. I don't know how many salad bars I've seen decorated to the hilt with dark cerise and white kale leaves. They look gorgeous and can really spruce up your culinary designs too. Their flavour is somewhat strong, but they are definitely edible.
If you do a little digging, you'll find all kinds of other interesting winter gems, like corn salad, arugula and lettuces like ‘Continuity’, a great buttercrunch variety and ‘Cimmaron’, a fabulous red romaine.
In this part of the world, we're still novices when it comes to the art of winter gardening. Don't go overboard, but for a bit of fun, try a few of these vegetables. The seeds are available now and the transplants a little later. For the sake of a few cents, you just may discover a whole new season of great garden harvesting.