Let me start off by saying that I’m not really a gardener. Gardening for me doesn’t extend much beyond pushing a few seeds into the ground and giving them the odd bit of water (not through lack of interest but because 99% of my time and energy goes toward helping my two small children to grow!). If I can grow food then anyone can!
Growing your own food is much cheaper than buying. There are also environmental benefits, such as being able to produce food without the use of pesticides, and being able to get the food from your garden onto your plate without any transport emissions being involved. I also like to think that growing food brings people together. For instance, you can gift or swap produce with friends, family and neighbours. People of any age can help each other out in the garden. Getting the kids involved is really good for their physical and mental health, as well as being a great learning opportunity. There is also no nicer feeling than sharing a home cooked meal and knowing that you grew several of the ingredients. You won’t cook with fresher vegetables than the ones you have grown yourself.
Winter days are often dull, wet, cold and very short, so it’s hard to imagine that it would be possible to grow food during this time. However, if you have access to a polytunnel there are a number of things which can be grown over the winter. A benefit of growing in a polytunnel over the winter is that it is quite pleasant to be gardening in a polytunnel on even the coldest and wettest of days.
If you fancy some fresh salad in January you could sow some seeds now. Other things to try are lettuce, kohl rabi and carrots. How well these grow over the winter depends very much on how soon the very cold weather sets in. You can give your mange tout a head start by sowing them now and keeping them protected by covering them in a layer of fleece. Broad beans can also be sown now for an early crop next spring.
My personal favourite things to grow in the polytunnel over the winter are onions and garlic (just because I use so much of both!). In a mild winter you could have garlic ready to harvest as early as March. Some gardening books recommend sowing your garlic in pots in the polytunnel and then moving them outside when the weather gets milder, but last year I planted mine straight into the ground in the polytunnel. I pretty much neglected them for most of the winter, except for giving them a bit of water (I think I weeded them once!) and yet they did fantastically well. I don’t think I’ve bought any garlic at all this year as I’m still eating what I grew last winter. The same goes for onions although I do find that they need to be weeded more frequently as they don’t compete very well with weeds.
If you want more detail (from some proper gardeners!) about growing in a polytunnel over the winter then there are plenty of books on the subject. My personal favourites are The Polytunnel Book by Joyce Russell and How to Grow Food in Your Polytunnel by Mark Gatter and Andy McKee. There is also plenty of information available on the internet for free!