It might seem odd to start thinking about Christmas 2023 now, but if you want to enjoy your own home grown veg on Dec 25th, now is the time to start planning. Many traditional Christmas veg are easy to grow, but it takes a bit of planning and some trial and error to get the timing right.
All the veg below will do better in a sunny patch of fertile soil and should be watered in dry spells. I’m a fan of growing crops together in mixed rows and beds – in theory this should confuse pests like carrot fly and mean you are less likely to loose a whole crop.
Potatoes – roast, mash or new?
I love roast potatoes at Christmas, probably because I hardly ever have them the rest of the year. I’d quite happily eat all three though.
Planting and care
Varieties: King Edwards to roast, Desiree to mash, Charlotte for new
For roast and mash varieties, chit them in February by storing them in a cool (around 10°C), light location, like a shed with a window or a porch. This encourages shooting and gives them a head start when you plant them. Put them in egg boxes with most ‘eyes’ or small dents facing up and leave for 4-6 weeks until the sprouts are around 2cm long. Plant out in mid-late April, either in the ground or in large pots or sacks. For a Christmas harvest, you can probably even plant out in May.
Prefer new potatoes? These don’t store as well, so plant them in summer for a Christmas harvest. Either save some seed potatoes that you bought earlier in the year by keeping them in the fridge, use a few from your summer harvest, or buy cold-stored seed potatoes for summer planting. You won’t need to chit them as the soil will be warm. Plant in August, or even September for a December harvest.
For all varieties, after planting, cover the potatoes with soil or peat-free compost and as they grow, add more compost around the stems- this is known as ‘earthing up’. You will need to do this several times over the growing season. You can also earth-up with grass clippings and comfry leaves – recommended if you are trying ‘no-dig’ gardening. Keep well watered and feed with a high nitrogen liquid feed – homemade comfrey or nettle feed works well, or you can buy liquid seaweed.
Harvesting and storage
Main crop potatoes (for mash/roasting) can be kept in the ground, covered with more soil and straw to insulate them. If you have heavy clay soil, slug problems, or it is especially cold or wet, it’s best to harvest and store them. Brush off the soil and leave to dry; store in a hessian or paper sack somewhere cool and dark.
Summer grown new potatoes are usually ready about 12 weeks after planting. If grown in pots in a greenhouse or in light soil they can be stored in the ground until Christmas. As with main crops, if the soil is very wet and heavy, lift the potatoes and store them buried in dry sand or compost in a frost-free location, like a shed.
Blight, a fungal disease, can be a problem in late grown potatoes as it thrives in warm, wet conditions – try growing blight resistant varieties. Potato scab can also be unsightly, but peel the potatoes and they are fine to eat.
Brussel Sprouts – love or hate them?
Varieties: Brodie F1 – claims not to have a bitter aftertaste, Red ball – a red variety, with a mild taste.
Love them or hate them, they have become a UK Christmas tradition. Grow your own and you might be a convert as you can choose a sweeter variety. I’m a sprout hater (or super taster), but I liked the ones I grew myself.
Like all brassicas, sprouts thrive in alkaline soil. If you have acidic soil, add some lime to the final growing patch at least 4 weeks before planting out. You could even do this now, if the ground isn’t frozen.
Image by Ben Kerckx from Pixabay
Sowing and pests
Seeds can be sown indoors in Feb or March, or directly in the ground in March or April. Indoor sowings should germinate within 3 weeks and can be potted on when they have true leaves and are large enough to handle. Slowly accustom them to outside conditions using a cold frame or by bringing them in at night.
Transplant them to their final growing position about 60cm apart, as the plants are quite large. It’s also worth staking the plants early, so they don’t rock in the wind. Don’t forget to net them to keep the pigeons off. If you use a fine net, you might also manage to keep out cabbage white butterflies – keep an eye out for eggs and caterpillars.
Depending on planting time, you can harvest from September onwards, starting at the bottom of the plant and working up. Or you can cut the whole stem off when all the sprouts have formed. Sprouts should be about 2.5cm in diameter, firm and still fully closed when picked.
The flavour of many varieties improves after a frost, so you should be able to continue picking fresh sprouts right up until Christmas day.
Varieties: Flyaway F1 – resistant to carrot fly, Nantes – medium length, Rainbow mix for something a bit different
Sow seeds very thinly from April and at intervals over spring and summer to extend your harvest. You can sow a short-rooted variety as late as August for a December harvest. Carrots, especially shorter varieties, can also be grown in pots outside or in a greenhouse.
Drought or over-watering may cause the roots to split, which increases your chances of winning funnist veg competitions.
Thinning out carrots will attract carrot root fly, so try to avoid this or choose a cloudy day and firm back in by watering. Use fleece or make a fly barrier with polythene or fine netting. Stop the flies from smelling the carrots by growing leeks, garlic or chives around them.
Image by Alexey Hulsov from Pixabay
Carrots can remain in the ground to harvest just before Christmas, or you can harvest in autumn and store them buried in dry sand or compost in the shed.
Varieties: Gladiator F1 – resistant to canker, The student – medium sized and good flavour
Sow seeds directly in March or April – they don’t like being moved. This can be in open ground or in large deep pots. Pots are better if you have clay soil. Sow thinly or sow three seeds together around 6 inches apart and thin out leaving the strongest plant. Sow on a still day as the seeds are very light. Seeds don’t store well, so use fresh ones every year; germination is often slow, up to 28 days so don’t write them off too soon.
Harvest when the foliage dies down in Autumn. Like sprouts, parsnips will become sweeter after the first frosts. The starch turns to sugar, to make the water in the tuber less likely to freeze. You can keep your Christmas harvest in the soil, but mulch ones grown in pots, or they might freeze fully and rot. You could also bring them into an unheated greenhouse for protection. If you harvest them early, store them in the fridge until Christmas and they’ll keep for 2 weeks.
Image by wal_172619 from Pixabay
Varieties: Red drumhead – compact and dark red, Pretino F1 – matures quickly and good for small plots
I love braised red cabbage at Christmas, it definitely beats sprouts for me. Sow cabbages in May or later for quick maturing varieties. Sow in modules and transplant to their final position in July. Make a hole and position the plants so the lower leaves are at ground level and water them in well before replacing the soil.
Like sprouts, cabbages prefer alkaline soil, so add lime if necessary – this will help prevent club root. Use mesh or fleece to keep out butterflies and cabbage root fly. Give them a good soak when the heads begin to form to increase their size. Harvest by cutting just above the stem with a sharp knife. Cabbages can be harvested in December, but can also be stored for many weeks in straw lined boxes in a cool dry place.
Varieties: Brora – good flavour and stores well, Marian – purple topped with resistance to club root and mildew.
Swedes don’t seem as popular these days, but are very easy to grow. Simply sow directly in May, thin if necessary and harvest the roots as required from Autumn.
It may surprise you that swedes are part of the brassica family and susceptible to cabbage white butterflies – protect with fine netting or mesh.
They can be left in the ground for Christmas and harvested until March. Mulch with straw if the weather is very cold or growing in pots.
I’ve never grown annual leeks before, but plan to try next year as they are meant to be easier than onions – I haven’t had much luck with them.
Sow thinly in modules or the ground in March or April and transplant seedlings when around 20 cm long and pencil thick. Make a hole with a dibber or stick 15cm deep, drop the leek in and fill the hole with water, not with soil to settle the roots.
To get a white stem, earth-up around it over the season to exclude light. Try not to get soil between the leaves, or there will be complaints of gritty leeks on Christmas day. You can even make protectors from cardboard or plastic to slide over the leeks before earthing up. Leeks can stay in the ground over winter and be harvested on Christmas day.