How to store or force tender winter veg

As the cold weather sets in, it can be a struggle to devise storing systems to keep vegetables through the winter. Having gone to all the trouble of growing them on my productive patch, I want to enjoy them for as long as possible.

Adrian Brocklebank, the veg grower at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, is an expert in this field. He needs to prepare his soil for next year and wants to lift crops still in the ground, so the space will be ready for digging over and manuring. And in any case, if the ground is frozen, and it’s raining, as it tends to be in our British winter, the pleasure of harvesting vanishes. Freezing hands grappling around in cold, wet soil is not one of gardening’s pleasures and it’s good to do what you can to avoid it.

How many of us can’t be bothered to go out to pick our veg through most of the winter, leaving it to rot in the ground, and head off to the local supermarket? I’ve been guilty of that in my time.

Instead – as Adrian recommends – lift as much as you can on a mild, late autumn day and store it.

Recently, in the Chatsworth kitchen garden and greenhouses, Adrian showed me five systems he uses for stashing away veg, each one guaranteeing the maximum use of the produce he – and hopefully we – have bothered to grow.

The first two are ingenious ways of storing and using your beetroot, carrots or turnips for eating right through the winter, their roots still delicious and plump, and their baby leaves packed full of flavour. Then he showed me how to make a vegetable clamp to store other roots, such as Jerusalem artichokes.

The fourth idea was for chicory – how to ensure a drip-drip production of those delicious smoky chicons, and prevent them all coming at once in a whoosh, too much to eat in one go.

And finally, Adrian gave me a brilliant tip for forcing rhubarb in a speedy four weeks. Rhubarb gives us some of the very best pies, tarts and syllabubs, so maybe this year, these super sweet, tender stems could replace or supplement a Christmas pudding.

Beetroot boxes

You can also use this system for carrots and turnips:

  • Find yourself a wooden or polystyrene box, ideally about 8in deep.
  • Line the bottom with newspaper to stop sand (or dry compost) from falling out.
  • Put a layer of sand in the bottom to a depth of about an inch. If the sand is totally bone dry, it might suck some moisture out of the beetroot and you don’t want that, so dampen the sand until it’s slightly moist – not wet. Moistened compost from this year’s tomato grow bags is also fine.
  • Never cut off the tops of your stored beetroot, always twist them off – this means they don’t bleed. Bleeding means less flavour and spongy beetroot.
  • Lay the beetroot on their side, virtually touching each other, but not quite.
  • Once you’ve got a full layer, cover it well with sand and then move on to the next, until you reach nearly the top of the box. Finish it off in a good 2in of sand.

A clamp for root veg

Jerusalem artichokes should be lifted at this time of year and carefully so, to ensure you get every last one out of the ground. Left where they are, they’ll be damaged by frost and slugs. And even if you gradually harvest them, the problem is that a few always tend to be left behind. These make very poor tubers, but will regrow, giving you tons of tiny roots in your artichoke patch, which are hellish to peel. That’s what gives the delicious Jerusalem artichoke a bad name. So instead, lift and store all your veg in a clamp.

  • Dig a shallow depression in the ground (place soil to one side) and lay 2in of straw in the bottom.
  • Put your root crop on that layer of straw and then cover with more. The straw allows water to drain straight through, but keeps the frost from penetrating into the middle.
  • Use the soil you dug out of the hole to cover the veg/straw mound. Veg are then protected but very easy to pick. Just open one side of the clamp and take what you need for that meal and then re-cover.

Baby salad leaves

If you have any tiny beetroot, too small to eat when you lift them, tidy them up by cutting off the tops, leaving about ½in on the root. Then plant them in pots in any spent soil – again, tomato grow bag compost will do – and put them on the windowsill, or anywhere light and warm, and water. These will start to sprout new leaves within a week or two – delicious baby leaves for winter salad – and should keep cropping lightly for much of the winter.

Adrian does the same with chard, lifting this year’s roots, cutting the foliage back and trimming the roots, so they can be potted up individually in a two-litre pot.

As with the beetroot, he waters and leaves them somewhere bright, but frost-free (a cold greenhouse is ideal) and these will soon start to grow again for harvesting. He also selects his favourite, most intensely coloured plants from his 'Rainbow’ or 'Bright Lights’ chard, planting several plants together in a large 10-litre pot. This looks good as it grows right through the winter, provides a harvest of baby leaves and is very ornamental in the veg patch in the spring. He leaves the flowers to ripen their seed, which he then collects – an easy way of guaranteeing lovely colour selections.

Chicory

Chicory is a brilliant winter vegetable crop, delicious and unusual, fantastic raw in salads and even better braised, or made into a risotto or sauce for pasta. Here’s how to make sure that you have a generous supply:

  • After a couple of good frosts, dig up chicory. Any time now is fine.
  • Trim the tops off, ideally leaving 1in of leaves only on the root. Don’t cut any lower, or you’re in danger of removing the growth point and nothing will regrow.
  • Scrape the fine fibrous side roots away from the main tap root, using the back of a knife. This stops them regrowing too fast.
  • Wash them off under a tap to remove any soil and again to prevent quick regrowth.
  • Then store the roots vertically in a gravel trap outside. This is just a box filled with gravel or coarse sand – a simple, well-drained, slug-free natural fridge.
  • Every couple of weeks, bring a few roots inside for forcing.
  • Do this by planting them in a deep container of compost in the warm – 61F is ideal. You can use two buckets - one bucket for planting them in (with drainage holes knocked in the bottom) and another for putting over the top to exclude all the light.
  • Once covered, check after about a week and they should already be shooting. Within two weeks, they’re ready for eating.

Rhubarb for Christmas

I had no idea you could still pick a harvest of rhubarb this year, but it’s easy to force.

  • Wait until your rhubarb has totally died back. Then divide one large crown in half and lift it.
  • Leave it outside until the exposed crown has had a couple of good frosts on it.
  • Bring the crown inside and plant into spent compost in an old compost bag. Keep it about 61F, the temperature of some of the Chatsworth greenhouses through winter. A warm cellar or laundry room would also be perfect.
  • Water and place an upturned container or bin over the top to exclude all light. You could simply put a cane through the middle of the crown, top that off with a small plant pot, and place a compost bag over the top of that.
  • Check after about a week and your rhubarb should be starting to sprout.
  • As soon as the stems are big enough to harvest (in about four weeks), pull what you want – never cut rhubarb, or the cut stalk may rot and then rot back into the crown. Replace its hat until the crown has stopped producing.
  • Once you’ve forced a plant, you have to discard it. Adrian has tried replanting them and it never works - the crowns are exhausted.