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By January 22, 2016 0 Comments Read More →

Getting through the Hungry Gap

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Purple spouting broccoli

Purple spouting broccoli

Dot Tyne, co-author of Viable Self-Sufficiency and writer of the very popular The Smallholder’s Diary in HF looks at ways of growing and foraging to feed the family during the hungry gap months of April and May.

See Also:

The Viable Self-Sufficiency Checklist

How Much Land for Self-Sufficient Living?

The Self-Sufficient Garden

Planning for a year-round harvest is, to my mind, the most important part of growing your own vegetable crops, especially when you’re hoping to be as self-sufficient as you can . For the most part, it’s not really that hard to do – summer and autumn are times of plenty, when most of us, even those with modest plots, grow far more than can be consumed; home preserving, freezing and swapping with neighbours becomes the order of the day. Over the winter there’s no shortage of things to eat either. All those warming casseroles, roasts and soups are easily catered for by using familiar cold-weather crops such as swedes, leeks, Brussels sprouts, kale and cabbages. Even early spring is relatively easy: just choose late-maturing varieties of the standard winter crops. However, once the calendar moves into April and May, things begin to get a bit tricky.

Traditionally known as the ‘hungry gap’, the hole that exists between the end of last year’s crops and the new season’s plantings can be hard to fill.

There have been times in the past when Tim and I spent most of this period with nothing much on the plate except rather soft-sprouted potatoes and stringy turnips. We are better organised these days (besides, the children would never stand for it!), and our thin time of year is nowhere near as thin as it used to be. Planning ahead is part of the answer, and you also need to make best use of the remains of last year’s crops, and keep your eyes open for any other opportunities that might present themselves.

Identify when your lean time occurs – for us it tends to be mid May through as far as mid June. In the south of the UK it might be a bit earlier than this, and probably a bit shorter as well, as their new season’s crops will probably be ready before ours are. If you have a polytunnel, your vegetable famine will be virtually non-existent, especially if you have been reading the Home Farmer series about growing under cover. If, like me, you haven’t got a tunnel (and it’s on my wish list!), then you need to be a bit cleverer in order to put food on the plate.


There is a fair amount of choice these days if you’re looking for specific crops to grow for the hungry gap. In addition to the main catalogues, many seed suppliers also circulate a summer publication detailing what they have to offer for autumn planting and winter cropping. Have a careful look through these, as you’ll almost certainly find something that will be ready to harvest in May, without the need for too much care and attention. I need to find crops that are hardy, will withstand the rigours of the winter with little or no protection, and still produce a reliable harvest in late spring and early summer.

I always try to grow some spring greens, also known as collards – tender, heartless cabbages that have a deep colour and a flavour that I can only describe as, well… green!

They’re autumn sown, usually from the second half of August through to the end of September, and I’ve found they differ from most brassicas in that they seem to prefer to be sown in situ. They won’t make much size before the winter sets in, but once the soil begins to warm up in late February, they will race away and be big enough to eat by the time you really need them.

Collards, otherwise known as spring greens.

Collards, otherwise known as spring greens.

There are also ball-headed cabbages that are autumn sown – these should be ready for harvest during the lean period, but I have to admit I’ve always failed dismally with them, so I stick to the spring greens.

One of my favourite crops for the hungry gap is the late-winter cauliflower. This is probably not one to grow if you are short of space, as they take virtually twelve months from sowing to harvest. Planted out in their final positions in July, you can leave them to their own devices. So long as they look strong and healthy you won’t need to do anything with them until you get close to cropping time. The wrapper leaves on these cauliflowers are plentiful (they need to be to protect the developing curds from adverse weather conditions), so you need to look carefully to see when they are ready to cut. Cropping is from late April though to late May, and the heads can reach an impressive size. The only downside is that, in common with a lot of cauliflowers, you can go from none to too many in a very short space of time; but given the fact that there isn’t much else about, that is a nice problem to have. There are also some varieties that you can autumn-sow for a slightly later spring crop, but I have never had much success with those. In a more sheltered spot they might do better.

Broad Beans

Broad Beans

Broad beans are one of the first crops I sow each spring, as they are pretty tough and will grow on in less than ideal conditions. However, for earlier beans that will be ready before most of the new season crops, plant some late in the autumn – the second half of October into early November is OK, provided that soil conditions allow you to work on the plot. Don’t be tempted to start them off much earlier than this, otherwise you might find the plants get too big before the bad weather sets in, in which case they’re far more likely to be flattened by high winds and battering rain. My overwintered beans usually go through a spell when they look dreadful, and I wonder if they are going to make it through until the spring, but on the whole they improve once things warm up, flowering and producing a welcome harvest when there’s little else around. You should expect to lose some of the plants over the winter period, so sow them closer together than you normally would. If you’re short of something for dinner, but the beans aren’t ready yet, you can eat the pods whole while they’re still small, rather like mangetout – just top and tail, and then steam them.

Purple sprouting broccoli is a key late-winter crop. There are quite a few different types to be found – the range of varieties has expanded considerably in recent years. The introduction of F1 hybrids was undoubtedly a breakthrough in terms of quality and yield, but the downside as far the hungry gap is concerned is that the cropping period is short – in my experience it can be as little as three weeks. I can see no point in growing early types, as there is plenty of other stuff around. Look for those that crop later, or for blends of different varieties that will crop over a long period, not finishing until well into May or even June in some cases.

There are also a number of salad crops that you can harvest a little at a time over the winter months, but they tend to run to seed as soon as the weather begins to improve.

Once the ground becomes workable, get some cut-and-come-again salad plants in.

These are fast growing, and although they won’t crop, or recover from cutting, as quickly as they would do a few weeks further into the growing season, there is a definite plus in that they won’t bolt so quickly either. If the soil isn’t workable, grow some fast-maturing salads in trays or pots in the conservatory, greenhouse or on the kitchen windowsill. You can always grow mustard and cress if you really can’t do anything else.

You can grow mustard & cress on the window sill.

You can grow mustard & cress on the window sill.

Recommended varieties for overwintering

* ‘Frostie’

* ‘Maystar’ (spring sowing for cropping the following year)
* ‘Mayflower’ (for autumn sowing)

* ‘Super Aquadulce’

* ‘Rudolph’
* ‘Mixed Purple Sprouting’ (blend)

There are several ways in which you can maximise the benefit you get from your standard winter crops, and these are key to seeing us through the hungry gap:

Don’t dig up your leeks as soon as they begin to run to flower. Grow a late-cropping variety to extend the season as far as you can, and if any do throw up flower stalks, you can cut the leek in half lengthways after harvest and remove the tough stem. The remainder will be perfectly useable. I am often still harvesting leeks in May.

Leeks will be perfectly usable well into May.

Leeks will be perfectly usable well into May.

When you harvest your winter cabbages, don’t pull them up. Instead, cut the head just above the bottom leaves and then score a deep cross in the cut stem. Come spring, new growth will sprout around the cut, which can subsequently be harvested and cooked like spring greens. You can do this a number of times on the same plant. If there are any cabbages that you don’t get round to harvesting, let them split and grow on. They will attempt to flower and you can harvest the leaves from the flower stems and eat the flower heads in the same fashion as sprouting broccoli.

I usually grow a dwarf, curly variety. It starts to run to seed from late March, and sends out a load of flowering spears, just like sprouting broccoli. Picked and then steamed, they are delicious.

Kale - picked and steamed is delicious.

Kale – picked and steamed is delicious.

This will begin to run to seed in early spring. Snap off any flower stalks that you see and continue harvesting leaves as long as you can. The shape of the foliage changes once the plants start to put up a flower stem, but that makes no difference to the flavour.

Once you have picked all the sprouts, don’t ignore the cabbage-like head at the top of the plant: cut it off and cook it like cabbage.

Cook the head of sprouts like a cabbage.

Any of these roots that you haven’t eaten by now will probably be too tough and woody for them to be much good, but if you allow them to start growing, they will produce leaves that can be steamed and eaten like spinach.

Many brassicas will continue to provide edible leaves after they are past their best, and well into the hungry gap.

Many brassicas will continue to provide edible leaves after they are past their best, and well into the hungry gap.


In addition to the plants you’ve cultivated, and the extra meals you have coaxed from your winter crops, you can find plenty of ‘alternative’ greenstuff in the garden, provided that you’re not too tidy a gardener! There is no real definition of a weed – it is just a plant that is growing where it isn’t wanted.

Chickweed is a staple for us during the lean times – it grows all over the vegetable plots given half a chance, and, as it’s something that is relatively easy to weed out, you won’t do much harm by leaving some to grow.

Chickweed is a staple for us during the lean times.

Chickweed is a staple for us during the lean times.

The leaves are too small to be picked individually, so use scissors to cut what you need, including the stems, which add crunch without being tough. In preference, look for the smooth-stemmed variety. Chickweed deteriorates once it gets close to flowering, so it’s probably best to stop picking once you get into mid June (by which time there should be plenty of other stuff to eat anyway). We tend to use it chopped up and mixed with onion, garlic and some chive flowers to make a good salad. I find that the best chickweed is found between the rows of early spuds, once the potato plants have a bit of top on them. The chickweed here is always really green and fresh looking, and crunchy and free!

Dandelions are bursting into growth at this time of year – you can use the leaves in salads, but you should blanch them first, otherwise they’re too bitter. If you find a good strong dandelion plant, you can cover it over with a flowerpot and blanch the leaves for a few days. Personally, I tend not to use them, as I favour the chickweed. Most of the dandelions in the vegetable garden are reserved for Rhian’s rabbit!

Nettles and Dandelion

Nettles and Dandelion

If your garden is anything like mine you’ll have an abundance of stinging nettles during May, and you can use them to supplement your diet too. They need to be picked while the leaves are still tender, and I recommend you wear gloves for the job! I have a soup recipe that’s good for using up bolted lettuces, and it works for nettles as well, with a bit of extra garlic and seasoning thrown in to counteract their blandness. Nettles are best used in recipes where spinach is an ingredient, rather than as a vegetable in their own right, as they are rather lacking in texture as well as flavour.

Fat hen is an extremely successful and prolific weed, and our plot has no shortage of it. It’s been used as a food plant since prehistoric times, but fell out of favour when spinach arrived on the scene, even though fat hen contains higher levels of both iron and protein. Pick young, fresh leaves, then cook and use them as spinach.

Bearing all this in mind, perhaps the hungry gap, while not being a time of plenty, is not such a lean period after all.

About the Author:

Ruth Tott is the publisher of Home Farmer Magazine, and together with her husband, Paul Melnyczuk, Editor,is founder of the company. But her background is far removed having specialised in Costume History with a Post-Grad diploma in Museum Studies to boot. A far cry from looking after chickens, growing veg and making bread!

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