I know it might sound daft, but you can really use the chillier, wet months of Portugal to actually plant and harvest vegetables. The weeds are small, growing slower, and easier to pick out, the soil is easier to work with, and the plants will need less watering. Many pests hibernate, migrate or have died off.
All the plant's need is shelter from the cold and rain – and obviously frost, if your area is prone to it. If you have the room, poly-tunnels might be worth the investment, and even an old window frame can be used screwed by its hinges to a frame you can easily create using old planks, just high enough to give some protection to your plants. You could even get creative with old pallets or those sturdy plastic fruit boxes, all they need is some strong plastic sheeting stapled or nailed around the sides and top. Another option is to use ‘garden fabric’ – a lightweight fabric that will protect plants from frost but allows some moisture, light and air through, but won't be as strong as plastic for protection from torrential rains. Add your seeds or seedlings, and away you go. And if you come across them, a posh glass cloche will also work.
All these placed over your plant will create a mini-climate. The moisture that the plant releases will stay within the shelter, creating condensation that is then reabsorbed by the plant. This keeps the humidity high around that finicky plant and cuts down on your watering schedule.
But with any of these shelters, there must be ventilation, or you are risking mold or mildew ruining your crops, so make sure some fresh air can get in, either by ventilation holes or leaving the lid ajar or the frame propped open on suitable days.
Vegetable plants to experiment with? Salad greens, spinach, cabbage, beets, onion, radish, brussel sprouts – are all worth a try. Don’t try summer crops, such as tomatoes, peppers or melons, you will have wasted your time as they need more heat. They will all need protection from the elements plus ventilation, but the heat from an unexpected sunny day will cause your seedlings to wilt and die, so it's crucial to allow for ventilation. Pay attention to weather forecasts! Here’s a tip I read if the weather starts to get really cold – before you store away your Christmas lights (and have waterproof sockets of course!), you can string them up inside your little shelter to give just enough warmth to keep frost from damaging your plants and turn it into a hot box during a cold snap. Not that I’ve tried it, so don’t shoot the messenger if I am wrong!
There’s nothing stopping you planting seeds outside the shelter too, and many will do well if they have good soil. Well drained soil in your vegetable garden should be loose and include organic manure. Organic matter improves soil by releasing nitrogen, minerals and other nutrients required for healthy growth. Most plants need 6-8 hours of sunlight, so south facing without shade or chilly conditions would give your plants a good start. Seeds that will probably be ok if planted outside in January are broad beans, lettuces, Chinese cabbage, onions, potatoes and even peas. Just bear in mind that strong wind can do a lot of damage to tender new plants, so a sheltered spot would be ideal.
If you have the space and appreciate spring flowers, you still have time to plant bulbs such as tulips or daffodils in January, as long as the ground is workable enough to dig a hole deep enough.
And a good tip is to buy good quality seeds if you go down that route as opposed to buying seedlings for your veggies because if the seeds don’t germinate you will have wasted your time and efforts. Plant things you like to eat too – nothing tastes nicer than something you have created yourself, and if you grow too much, give it away with pride.