Winter Cover Crops You Can Eat!

Winter Cover Crops

If there’s one thing we grown up gardeners can pretty much guarantee, it’s that our energy levels won’t be quite what they once were. That doesn’t mean gardening’s off the agenda – far from it! But it does mean we may have to work differently in order to compensate. So, given that carting barrow loads of compost (whether it’s from your bin or your trailer) to the garden beds, is one of the most exhausting of jobs, perhaps it’s time we ditched it in favour of something smarter.

That something smarter is a cover crop, a thick seed-sowing of nitrogen-rich, and often, nitrogen-fixing plants. The seeds of a cover crop are sown in autumn (or, in warmer parts of the country, as late as mid-winter). Come the end of the cold season, the crop is cut down and dug back into the soil. There, it breaks down, fertilizing the bed ready for spring planting, and suddenly, there’s no need to be carting compost to do the same job!

So far, so good, but cover crops get even better. By choosing the right cover crops, we can also grow a kitchen harvest – and at one of the leanest times of the year. Early to late spring (and even early-summer, if you live in a particularly chilly part of the country) are well known for being an expensive period for buying fresh greens. To top it off, there are few fresh greens in the garden to put on the table. But cover crops, such as Tasty peas, broad beans, tick beans, mustard, and daikon radish, don’t mind giving us a serving of salad while they grow.

Hardy Tasty peas are sold as a microgreen, in affordable kilo bags, by Kings Seeds. However, they do equally well as a cover crop. Their young shoots, which are ready in a matter of days if the weather is mild, can be snipped off a few centimetres above the ground, and tossed into salads or sprinkled over soups. Don’t be too greedy, and the plants will regrow to give you the cover crop you desire.

Broad beans (and their smaller cousin, the Tick Bean) are extra hardy vegetables that happily grow through the coldest winters. Though their leaves are strong, the new growth at the top of the stem is deliciously tender. As the bean plants punch up towards the light, it’s possible to pinch out a few of their newest leaves from the top. This won’t kill the plants, and the leaves can be steamed and served with melted butter (they taste quite like asparagus) or popped, raw, into salads as a fresh flavour-booster.

Mustard, as we all know from childhood sandwich fillings, and more latterly as a garnish at top restaurants, is super-easy to grow and helps kill off disease in the garden. Your cover crop of mustard will happily give you a few snippings a week for the kitchen, then grow on to fertilize the garden.

Every gardener has met the humble, reliable little spring radish, but fewer have encountered its giant relative, the winter daikon. Daikon radishes can grow up to 750 grams in weight (and, sometimes, even as much as a kilo!), and because they enjoy cold weather, they are perfect for growing as a cover crop. As well as the root being a crispy addition to salad (they are not at all pungent, and take the place of cucumber in the kitchen), the daikon also sports a mass of tender lime-green tops. The inner leaves of the plants topknots are delicate, and delicious to eat raw in sandwiches and salads. The older, outer leaves can be wilted quickly in boiling water (give them just a short dip, then drain them thoroughly). To make a Mediterranean-style entrée, douse them in lemon juice, olive oil and freshly ground black pepper, and serve lukewarm alongside crunchy fresh bread and feta cheese.

No garden – or gardener – should be without an edible cover crop, so mark the sowing date in your diary, today!