It is my lot in life to be always thinking of the next season. As you start to get excited about tomatoes, or are becoming ingenious with courgettes, as basil is bursting forth and the jam pan is bubbling over, I want to persuade you to think of the dark, wet nights of November, or those moody slate-grey days in February. I want your summer self to think of your winter one and give it a gift.
My present is Chinese mustards. Last year, I fell deeply in love with ‘Nine Headed Bird’ and ‘Dragon’s Tongue’, both from the Real Seed Catalogue), two large mustard greens that brought a sweet, spicy heat to many a meal over winter. I would go so far as to say I feel evangelical about them.
The young leaves are mild enough that, covered in a sweet balsamic-soy dressing, they made hearty salads; when their midribs fatten and their leaves grow large, they are wonderful to cook with. Each leaf is around 50cm long and thus you can collect armfuls of greens from just six or so plants. When they came to an end, I had the treat of all late-winter treats, the unopened flowerbuds, which are crisp, sweet and spicy, and as good raw as cooked. I often ate them there in the polytunnel, gorging on these final offerings that kept bursting forth as they desperately tried to set seed.
If you want this – and I so want you to – then you have to sow now. The same goes for pak choi (rosette or standard), choy sum, mizuna, other mustard greens, coriander, flat-leaved parsley, winter lettuce and over-wintering storage radishes – try ‘Black Spanish Round’; it’s delicious cooked.
Related: How to grow berries | Alys Fowler
Successional sowing from now until the end of August in modules will give you plants large enough to produce in the low light levels of coming seasons. The July sowings will take you through autumn into early December; the last August sowings will take you into spring. Space plants 30cm apart in each direction in the ground, or grow one plant per pot (30cm or larger).
These cool-weather crops do best with some sort of protection. If you have a greenhouse, cold frame or polytunnel of any size, do not waste its winter potential. They are, I am sure, filled to the brim with tomatoes, chillies and cukes right now, but if you wait until you are pulling these crops out to sow them, you’ll not be eating anything until February, so act now. That’s not to say they can’t be grown outside, but a little fleece, enviromesh or low tunnels will keep their flavour sweet, rather than eye-wateringly hot.