Winter Edible Garden

Short version:

It is easier to eat seasonally in the summer and autumn, but hopefully this week’s blog can give you some ideas about what you could grow in a UK garden (and maybe other northern hemisphere areas) over winter… which seems like a good idea when you see the news full of Brexit, lockdowns and of course becoming more sustainable is on my mind anyway after last week’s climate change blog.  

Last week’s climate change blog inspired a panic of ‘MUST GROW MORE FOOD’!!! This week’s lockdown announcements also inspired a panic of ‘MUST GROW MORE FOOD’!!!  Whilst this is still true, after assessing the garden in its current state, I realised how many things there were still in the garden to eat, even in January. The quantities are not so great, but the variety isn’t bad. It was actually one of my goals this year – to try and create a garden that would feed us more through the winter. In the summer, every day, we can pop out into the garden and bring something back to eat. there is a time, during the summer (changes depending on what we plant and how the weather is behaving) when we can eat fresh fruit and veg solely from the garden. Whilst I don’t think this is achievable for the winter, it would be fabulous if we could, at least, supplement our food shop with food from the garden. Currently we get maybe 4 or 5 meals a week that have garden vegetables. Sadly, this won’t last into February, but below is what we have been able to eat this winter so far. All of the photos were taken this month, though most were taken this week.

Persistent perennials:

Purple tree collard – This is fabulous brassica and has grown huge (it was 10ft, now pruned to 8ft). We’ve mostly ignored it over the summer so now there is still plenty to harvest. The leaves are a bit tough, but that is remedied with some longer cooking times. It’s not as prone to powdery mildew as the Daubenton’s kale and as the weather turned some of the went leaves yellow. It does benefit from frequent harvesting to allow for more air circulation. Highly recommend this for large amounts of winter (and hungry gap) food. It also produces a lot for the amount of soil space that it takes up. It tastes great as kale crisps. Click for more info.

Daubentons kale – we do have a problem in the summer with powdery mildew, especially when it gets really hot and humid. We have lost much of the growth this year and have had to chop it back quite severely, but this does much better in the winter. The growth is slow, but this, like the purple tree collard, does produce a lot of food for the space it takes. Click for more info.

Watercress – It’s refreshing to have a leaf that doesn’t taste similar to brassicas. The only problem is that it really is slow growing. It also takes up quite a lot of soil space. Click for more info.

Physalis – this evergreen bushy plant still has plenty of fruit growing on it through winter. The fruit doesn’t mature so quickly when the weather is cold, but the berries are a welcome fruit when there is no other fruit available in our garden. Click for more info.

Three cornered leek – It is illegal to plant it in public spaces because of what a nuisance it can become. Therefore, I was very careful with planting it in a border surrounded by walls and flagstones where it wouldn’t escape. I also planted it sparsely. It has self-seeded and spread very well. I have also grown it in the very shadiest spot, under the physalis bush. There’s enough for a couple of meals but hopefully next year this space will be totally full, and I can harvest it into submission. I do wonder if it would make a good winter substitute for grass. The only reason I haven’t (yet) is that in the summer it dies back completely so we would have a lot of bare earth that cats would just poo on. Click for more info.

Chinese chives – these are dying back with the cold weather but there is a little bit to eat still. This won’t make a complete meal, but it can be added to stir fries, soups, stews or sauces. Click for more info.

Walking onions – these have been planted in quite a shady spot, so they’ve grown rather slowly. There is plenty for stir fries, soups, stews or sauces. Click for more info.

Perennials that need a bit of a hand:

These are root vegetables so need a hand because if you remove everything from the soil then there’ll be nothing next year. All the following 3 have the sugar inulin, so they can cause gas because they feed the gut flora – so a bad but good thing.

Yacon – I only harvested this, this week. They’re can be really easy to pull up, root system and all, if the soil is friable. Raw tubers have a texture of water chestnut and a taste of carrot mixed with apple. They get sweeter when left on a sunny windowsill for a week. They can be stored in the ground (as long as the ground doesn’t become completely frozen) over winter and provide a decent amount of food. Little one loves them raw, but we don’t have many uses for them beyond that. They need peeling as the skin is bitter. They grow back from rhizomes (so you can eat all the tubers), which can be stored in a pot of compost somewhere sheltered. Click for more info.

Jerusalem artichoke – This is a new one for us this year. I was surprised at just how much food they produced for the amount of ground space needed. They do grow very tall though (ours were about 10 ft) so plan carefully where to grow them. They too can be stored in the ground (if there isn’t a hard freeze) and become sweeter with a frost. They also store fine in a fridge for a couple of weeks. The skins can be left on and they are lovely roasted or sauteed. You need to leave a couple of tubers to grow the following year. Raw they have a texture and taste a bit like nutty waterchestnuts. Cooked they are like potato and taste quite like steamed artichoke hearts. Click for more info.

Chinese artichoke – these are harder to harvest as they grow very deep down into the soil and are fairly small. It’s fun for the little one to dig and spot them though. This does mean that you are likely to have left tubers behind, so they’ll grow back easily the following year. The tubers look like tiny Michelin men and are very fiddly to clean. They have thin skin that doesn’t need peeling. Raw they taste and feel like waterchestnuts with a hint of mild radish. Cooked they are more like taro in taste and texture. Fiddly, but fun. Click for more info.

Self-seeding annuals:

Lambs lettuce – little one loves these as a salad leaf. The only reason I don’t grow more of it is that it forms very short plants, so they do take up a lot of soil space. A definite disadvantage in our small garden. Click for more info.

Winter purslane – eaten like lettuce, this also grows very short but it self-seeds so readily and grows so well under and around things that no matter how much we eat there is always plenty the next season. It is a bit fiddly to harvest though. Click for more info.

Nasturtiums – these are a fabulous plant to have in the winter. We have a trailing/climbing variety that uses the pear and apple tree to climb up. This is something we discourage in the summer, but in the winter when the leaves have all fallen and the fruit trees are dormant, we let the nasturtiums grow rampant and it’s a great non-brassica to have. Some of the plants will be ones that have grown through the summer and some of them will have grown from seed from September. They don’t deal well with frost so we must try and eat anything edible before the really cold weather to avoid waste. Click for more info.


All of the following are frost hardy and do well in the UK winters. The growth is slow though. If you plan it well you can have these almost ready as the winter starts and then the garden can act as a bit of a larder. Sadly, I didn’t plant many of them soon enough or in large enough quantities. I mostly waited to clear everything else before sowing them:

Radishes – generally grow quickly in warm weather, they need about 2 months to mature in late autumn. They haven’t grown much in the past month though. We also grow these for the greens overwinter. Click for more info.

Beetroots – we grow golden beetroots as they’re sweeter. Little one will only eat the yellow ones. We only have about 3 left in the garden. We should have planned better and sown more.

Chard –  most of our plants are actually from a neighbour. They’re quite little so aren’t providing much now, but they should grow really well in early spring and be a welcome harvest in the hungry gap (April /May when there is little else available). Click for more info.

Cauliflowers – these were planted in too shady a spot and the curds are tiny.

Annual Kales – have Red Russian and Pentland Brig. These are still quite small but hopefully that means that they may still be going over the hungry gap.

current batch of pea shoots


Pea shoots – these can also be grown year-round indoors. It takes 4-6 weeks to get something to eat. These can be grown cheaply from supermarket dried peas.  Click for more info.

Bean sprouts – these can be grown from dried mung beans year-round and only takes about a week. Click for more info.

Ideas for this year

Collards over kales – I’m sure the purple tree collard and the Daubentons will continue to thrive, but in order to keep producing lots of food over both winter and the hungry gap I think it’s work starting a couple more purple tree collards. 3 plants would provide enough for meals 3-5 times a week year-round. We might get a bit bored of it, but we’ll just have to find new interesting ways to cook it. It might also be a good replacement for a Daubentons. Whilst I love it for the tender tasty leaves, I’m fed up with dealing with the powdery mildew.

Grow food not lawns – To make the most of the space, I think it’s worth removing some of the patchy lawn (or just planting into the bare bits) to replace it with watercress, maybe try some landcress, Chinese chives and three-cornered leek. The Chinese chives and three-cornered leek thrive during opposite sides of the year so if I interplant them, the ‘grassy’ area shouldn’t get too bare. It’s worth sowing some winter purslane and lamb’s lettuce into this too. This means the area where the watercress currently is could support more chard, cauliflowers, or annual kale instead. These I’ll make sure I plant more of, and earlier than I did last year. Hopefully that means we’ll be covered in both winter and the hungry gap. We’ve tried growing edible flowers in the lawn but we’ve only managed to get a couple of each plants so far. We might also try some mint or lemon balm.

Think ahead – In August September  the garden is rather full and it’s hard to keep up with the harvesting so it’s hard to think of the leaner months, but this is when I need to sow more beetroots and chard to prepare for winter. More radishes need to be sown in early October so they can be harvested in December and then they can be left to provide greens over the later months.

Leaves – There’s a few new things I’d like to try this year. We have a muskmallow plant that still has some green leaves so maybe this year we could grow more, for the flowers in summer and for salad leaves in winter. My neighbour gave us some leeks in the last week of December. If they grow well in her garden, they’ll certainly be fine 4m away. I’m dying to try growing tatsoi and texsel greens too. I’ve never been particulary successful with Oriental leaves like pak choi, choi sum and kai lan. It’s always eaten by everything else in the garden, from pigeons to slugs. I think it’s time to give it another go.  

Winter squashes – We’ve never really grown winter squashes to store. We’ve grown tromboncino, spaghetti squash, red kuri and pumpkin munchkins and have always eaten them young or soon after they’ve gone orange. This year we’ve ended up with a tromboncino and a few pumpkin munchkins left over that we just never got round to eating. Our garden is small, so we don’t tend to get much left over. This year I think we’ll put a few more supports in and grow a few more things vertically. We’ll leave more tromboncino and spaghetti squash to ripen and cure and I think we’ll try ‘Crown Prince’ squash this year too.  

Maybe this time next year I’ll be able to update with an annoyingly smug post about our garden success… er that is… if home schooling hasn’t sent me mad by then.


Short version:

A perennial root vegetable that has juicy tubers that look like sweet potatoes, felty leaves and small daisy like, yellow flowers. They are harvested in December and have the texture of water chestnuts and the taste of the inner sweet core of carrots (according to a friend). They grow from the rhizomes rather than the tubers. Tubers contain inulin and become sweeter if left for a week on a sunny windowsill.

December is a good time to talk about yacon. As the frosts arrive, the yacon plants are shrivelling. They are a little-known, perennial root vegetable (in the UK anyway). I had only heard of it a couple of years ago as I strove to make my garden more perennial. So – like potatoes, yacon roots will swell to form tubers for winter storage, unlike potatoes which propagate from these tubers, the yacon also has rhizomes which will grow shoots in spring to form the new plants. I’ve read that the tubers also can be used to grow plants – but if you have these much less tasty rhizomes there for propagation, why would you not eat the tubers?

I’m not overly fond of perennial root vegetables, if I’m honest, as it requires more work than I like. For me, the perfect plant is one I plant one year and then for ever after (or at least for many years after) I get to harvest something from them. I don’t mind if it takes a couple of years for something to get going, but once it’s going, I prefer to pick fruit, leaves, nuts, stems… basically something that doesn’t require pulling up and replanting every year. I love low maintenance self-seeders too, like winter purslane or nasturtiums.

Young (ish) yacon plants at the top of the planter in early June. There’s strawberries in the front, a tromboncino behind on the left that had space to grow over the fence and some sugar snap peas that grew and were harvested before the yacon got too tall. The pallet planter itself was filled with around 3 months worth of kitchen green waste and cardboard and left to decompose the winter before.

What does a yacon taste of?

This is the first thing to talk about because this is the reason I grow it, despite my laziness. It isn’t available in the shops and its taste and texture is very unusual. Basically, raw, it has the texture of water chestnuts. For anyone who hasn’t had water chestnuts it’s like a radish, but brittle. Radishes (like carrots) I would call crunchy. Yacon is more, what I’d call crispy – like a crisp apple. Aaaargh! It’s difficult to describe. Now, the taste is something between apple, carrot, pear… celery? Or as my neighbour said – core of a carrot. Someone mentioned a slight honey taste. When freshly picked it doesn’t taste that amazing, but when left to ‘cure’ on a sunny windowsill it turns unexpectedly sweet. The texture gets a little softer, but that’s a price I’m willing to pay for the sweetness. After some cold weather, if left in the ground it also gets sweeter, though not as sweet as those cured on the windowsill. If anyone has the vocab to describe both the taste and the texture please comment. I really am stuck!

From what I’ve read, yacon has a sugar in it called ‘inulin’ which human digestive systems can’t process – so it’s supposed to be great for diabetics and those wanting to lose weight. Just a warning though, if you eat too much you get rather windy. This is because the inulin is instead digested by our gut bacteria creating gases in the intestines. It is, therefore, reportedly good for gut health as a prebiotic (something that feeds the bacteria as opposed to a probiotic which is something that contains lots of healthy bacteria to populate the gut).

Growing yacon

I’ve never seen these available as seeds. They are also not available from the usual companies. They can be found online on websites specialising in perennial vegetables or on eBay. They’re sold as rhizomes or young plants. I suspect young plants are the safer option as you’ll know it survived and rhizomes could’ve been damaged if not stored properly. Rhizomes are easier to send in the post though.

This small plant is then potted into fertile compost when all danger of frost has passed and basically left until the first frosts in winter kill the plant above ground. The more fertile the soil and the sunnier the spot, then the more likely it is that you’ll get many big tubers. They also need sufficient water for lovely juicy tubers. They don’t do well in our clay, stony soil so we only grow them in planters or very (I really do mean very) large pots. They are great for pots though as it makes for an easier harvest.  

The yacon have velvety spear shaped leaves with slightly jagged edges. The stems go purple at the base and the flowers are yellow and about the size of a 50p. Depending on the fertility of the soil and the size of the pot the plant can be 3 to 5ft at maturity. They are also rather bushy.

Harvesting yacon

When the plant above ground is dying you can start harvesting yacon. This year we began at the end of November because I had run out of veg in the house. All you need to do is grasp the bottom of the shoots and gently and slowly wriggle the whole thing out of the soil. The roots are fairly brittle and the skin of the tubers quite delicate, so you need to be kind. When you’ve pulled the while thing out it will be fairly obvious if any of the tubers have broken off and been left in the soil. Alternatively, if they are grown in a pot you can shake the whole pot out and extract the whole root system.

You can stagger the harvesting as the tubers don’t go mushy in the ground after a frost. They can get sweeter with some cold weather. The plan so far is to harvest every 2-3 weeks to keep a continuous supply.

Once the roots are out you snap or cut the tubers off from the rhizomes. The stems and the dead leaves can be cut off the rhizomes and composted. The rhizomes can then be stored in some damp (but not wet) compost till spring. If you’re worried about the winter weather, they can be put into a shed or something. Mine have survived the winter fine outside so far but the winters have been mild here.

In the spring check the rhizomes for any sprouts. You may get several sprouting tips on each rhizome which can be cut into chunks according to sprouting tips and grown as separate plants.    

Storing and eating yacon

Let the yacon dry indoors for a day so the soil dries and can be brushed off with gentle fingertips and place on a sunny windowsill for around a week or two to ‘cure.’ Now, literature says that they shouldn’t be washed as scrubbing damages the skin and leads to mould. What if I didn’t scrub?I believe that they’re fairly damp when they come out of the soil so is there anything wrong with giving them a little rinse immediately after harvesting and patting dry before curing or storing in the fridge? I harvested a batch yesterday morning (12th Dec) and I’m going to try washing them and I’ll post in comments next week the results of washing.

You can eat them fresh, cured or anything in between the two. Curing makes the yacon sweeter (to the extent that it can be as sweet as an apple) but the yacon will be less firm (slightly rubbery to touch but oddly it’s still got that bite when eating) and it’s harder to peel because it’s a little soft.

The skin can be bitter so they should be peeled. The yacon will then discolour, it goes a very dark green (almost black) colour, quite quickly after peeling, especially one that has been cured. They still taste fine though. Because the skin was so thin, one time, I tried just scrubbing them the way you can carrots. This was a bad idea. They were still bitter on the surface and the water went very dark green and I ended up having to peel anyway. Just an FYI, the juice of the yacon feels sticky on your hands and is hard to wash off.

They are very juicy when eaten raw. They’re great chopped into salads. They maintain structural integrity when stewed. They have a pleasant bite when fermented with kimchi in the place of carrots. They can be roasted or sautéed. The absolute winner for me is that my little monkey loves them raw as a snack. Prebiotic veggies into child… that’s a mummy win… and she has no trouble letting one rip when the gas builds up!