From roast potatoes to Brussels sprouts, carrots and parsnips pulled straight from the ground, dishing up home-grown veg on Christmas Day is quite an achievement. Timing slow-growing winter veg to peak on Christmas Day takes patience, but, if you get it right, you’ll have the very best for the year’s most important meal, plus plenty to pick all winter, too.
Time to get digging!
Weed thoroughly, turn the soil over and rake level. Sow parsnips first – parsnips are a bit unreliable when it comes to germination so you need to allow plenty of time, especially as they are quite slow to get going even when they do germinate.
TIP: Parsnips can take up to a month to germinate. Sow radish seeds in the same holes to act as markers. These can then be harvested as the parsnips grow.
Sow carrots into shallow drills of well-prepared soil.
Sow leeks in seed trays under cover. Cover with a propagator lid or plastic bag until the seedlings emerge, and then keep the compost damp as the plants grow on.
Sow nasturtiums direct in the soil or in pots. Cabbage Whites (caterpillars) will hopefully then eat these instead of your cabbages later in the year.
Thin carrots and parsnips by pulling the smaller seedlings to leave the largest growth. You need to leave around 5cm between carrots and 10-15cm between parsnips. If seedlings have emerged in a clump, just cut off the unwanted ones at ground level.
Sow swede direct into dampened, well-prepared soil. Cover lightly with compost.
Sow Brussels sprouts (if you must), cabbages and kale into trays. Place on a windowsill or in a greenhouse to germinate.
Keep nasturtium seedlings well watered. Check newly sown drills daily to ensure they remain damp.
Keep on top of weeding to ensure weeds don’t compete with your veg for water and nutrients.
Plant out leeks once they have reached the thickness of a chopstick, planting each one in a hole 15cm deep and 15-25cm apart.
TIP: ‘Puddle’ your leeks in by watering the planting hole rather than backfilling it with compost. This helps to reduce the amount of mud you have to clean out of the leeks when you come to prepare them for eating.
Harden off cabbages, kale and Brussels sprouts over a 10-day period by taking them outside during the day and bringing them in at night. Plant them out into rich, neutral to alkaline soil. Leave 45cm between cabbages and 60cm between Brussels sprouts and kale. Plant deeply and firm each plant in well.
TIP: Dusting your young plants with talc will stop some pests eating all your hard work.
Fertilise your crops by lightly scattering fertiliser around each plant, or watering with a liquid feed. Organic fertilisers include fish, blood and bone, or you can make your own nettle or comfrey feed.
Make cabbage root fly collars, if necessary, by cutting a 15cm circle of cardboard and snipping a slot into the centre. Place this around the stem of each brassica seedling, to prevent cabbage root flies from laying eggs in the roots.
Cover brassica plants with fine mesh to deter large and small white butterflies from laying eggs on the leaves. If you do find eggs on the leaves then snip the whole leaf off and attach it to a nasturtium leaf with a clothes peg. The caterpillars will eat the nasturtiums instead.
Draw soil over parsnip shoulders to prevent them from canker.
Keep watering carrots, parsnips and swedes if conditions are dry.
Check cabbages and kale for aphids. If infestations are small then ladybirds, lacewings and hoverflies will control them for you. If numbers reach pest proportions then blast with a jet from your hose or spray with a soap spray.
Plant potatoes in sacks or containers. Place two potatoes in each sack, water well and keep in a sunny, sheltered spot.
Keep inspecting brassica leaves for caterpillars or eggs, and transfer them all to your nasturtiums. Don’t worry if your nasturtiums look worse for wear – that’s what they’re there for.
Earth up carrots to prevent the tops from going green.
Keep watering all plants regularly to ensure there are no restrictions in growth or losses due to dry conditions.
Earth up potatoes by adding more compost (ideally mixed with manure) to the bag so only the top leaves are visible. Plant more potatoes in sacks, in case the first crop fails. Keep watering regularly.
To ensure against loss, sow a late crop of carrots in containers of moist, sieved soil in the greenhouse.
Blanch leeks by slipping a collar over each and pulling earth around it, to promote long, white shanks. You can make the collars using cut pieces of plastic downpipe or cardboard. This is a fussy job, but worth it if you like long white leek shanks.
Stake Brussels sprouts and kale, as they can become top-heavy. Drive a sturdy stake into the ground and tie each plant into it.
Lift and store some of your carrots – you can leave maincrop carrots in the ground in most parts of the country but, as an insurance, lift some, twist off the foliage and store them in boxes of damp sand, so they’re completely covered.
Bring potato sacks undercover, ideally into your greenhouse or indoors. This will protect them from frost and increase your chances of a good harvest.
When your Brussels sprouts have plenty of buttons, cut the tops of the plants off to stop upwards growth, which will ensure the plant’s energy is directed to maturing the sprouts.
To ensure against harvesting in heavy, frosty conditions, lift leeks now and pack them into pots of compost, to keep them fresh.
Mulch swedes and parsnips with a thick layer of straw to stop the ground freezing around them.
If conditions are mild, dig up your parsnips two weeks before Christmas and keep them in the fridge, as cold conditions increase sweetness.
Harvest carrots and swedes two days before the big day, gently loosening the soil and easing them out of the ground (or take carrots out of storage). Cut cabbages whole, leaving the stalks in the ground to resprout.
On Christmas Eve, harvest Brussels sprouts by cutting the whole stem, or selecting the biggest ones and popping them into a bag. Empty your sack of potatoes and select the biggest ones for the table.
On Christmas morning pick sage, rosemary and kale leaf by leaf.
TIP: For the best results, water and feed the plants as necessary, weed regularly to ensure there’s no competition for light and nutrients and remove pests on a daily basis.
Now you just need to cook it all!