Winter salad tips

A salad composed of your own greens and herbs is a fine thing in winter. It brings to mind the lighter eating of spring and summer, and provides a fresh complement to hearty winter fare.

composed winter salad

Continuity and Forellenschluss lettuce top this composed winter salad.

So if you have a few things growing or surviving in the garden, or in cold frames and cloches, here are some tips on making the most of them.

When picking winter lettuce, arugula, spinach and Asian greens, harvest late in the day. If possible, wait until the season extension device has been open for a while to let it air out. Letting fresh air wash over the greens will crisp them up and dry out the plants a bit, so harvest will be easier.

Pick the bigger leaves, which are more crisp, but also more prone to breaking. This will allow the plant to send more energy to the smaller leaves to size them up, rather than having to sprout new leaves.

Discard any leaves which have wilted around the base of the plant or are losing their color. Trim off wilted leaves so they don’t cause rot to spread to the stem or other leaves.

cloched salad greens

Little Gem romaine, Continuity lettuce and garden arugula share the winter protection of a cloche.

Make a note of what is doing well. Some lettuce varieties fare so much better than others in winter. Continuity (aka Marvel of Four Seasons) is a winter star. The light-green ruffly Simpson is strong, and Little Gem romaine and Bronze Oak Leaf both stand up exceedingly well. However, Forellenschluss, one of my favorites, is surprisingly tender. I still grow some of it, just for its speckled leaves.

Heartier greens also show up in the salad bowl. Radicchio adds spice, rainbow chard and beet greens add color, and the smaller, more tender leaves of kale or other brassicas, in small quantities, contribute desner, heartier bites.

I’ve also found that the cultivated arugula with its wide, heavily lobed leaves does much better than the wild one with spiky leaves.

Arugula with cloche

Arugula benefits from a cloche cover as the winter progresses.

Don’t stop there, however. Hopefully, you will also have some herbs to spice up the salad. I always have flat-leaf Italian parlsey, thyme and oregano, and sometimes sprigs of agastache or snips of green onion too.

After each harvest, I will note the best plants in my garden journal, because as sure as the sunset I will have banished all my memories of winter when I am planting next year’s winter salad, in shorts and a t-shirt on a long summer day.


Minimize nitrates

An afternoon harvest is important, too, because the plants will contain fewer nitrates. Nitrate-nitrogen is accumulated in plants because there is lower physiological activity on short winter days. Nitrates have been cited by some as health problems, although I could not find  studies conclusive enough to feel that idea is absolutely proven.

A recent study by a Washington State University researcher, which I detail in my book, showed a higher level of nitrates in winter greens, especially Asian greens of the Brassica genus, but also lettuce and spinach plants. To err on the side of caution, I follow the WSU researcher’s results and tips.

The highest concentration of nitrates was found in plants in the morning, with lower levels found after some respiration and photosynthesis by the plant during the day.

Higher amounts were also found in the hearts of head lettuces and in the petiole section of the leaf nearest the stem, compared to the leaf blade.

Older spinach leaves had much higher concentration than younger leaves.

Varieties with smooth or semi-savoyed (crinkled) leaves had lower concentration than heavily savoyed leaves.

Eat winter-picked greens as soon as possible after picking, as nitrate levels were shown to rise as the vegetables aged in room-temperature conditions.


Enhance conditions

When picking for a winter salad, I also check for pests, and remove slugs or snails.

If the row of greens is dense, I might pick by thinning, taking out every other plant. This will give the remaining plants room to spread out, and reduce competition for soil nutrients, which also are limited in winter.

More room around the plants means better air circulation, which will reduce wilt and rot from moisture accumulation on stems and leaves.


Check the devices

A winter harvest is also the time to check and see how the season extension devices are performing.

I’ve found my cold frame soil to be right at 50 degrees now. The plants inside are fine, after covering them with a double layer of floating row cover during our recent week of temperatures at or below freezing.

I’m amazed by the Triangle Tunnel, one of my newer designs that I put in the DIY building plan section of the book. Small lettuce starts are showing good growth, which is better than I anticipated from this simple, plastic-covered A-frame. Perhaps it’s because of its size: the amount of air inside is modest, so the radiating heat from the soil can easily keep it a bit warmer.

Finally, my two cold frames are both performing well, but the one put directly on the ground is doing better than the one attached to a wood-sided raised bed. The soil in the ground CF is more moist than the raised bed CF. In that one, the soil is drying out and getting a little crusty. I need some straw mulch around the plants in there to solve those problems.

Harvesting a salad is a great reason to get out and examine the winter plants in the garden. Besides finding out how the season extension devices are faring and what the snails are eating, you get a healthy, fresh addition to winter dinners.

Post-holiday yard frosting

I got out the plant blankets.

Going into last weekend, it became pretty clear that we were headed for a cold front, so I pulled out a few extra pieces of floating row cover and visited my cloches and cold frames. I laid the FRC directly on the plants, doubling it over the salad greens like lettuce, which are my most tender crops.

Sure enough, cold and snow came a-calling.

Two types of cloches protect plants in my front yard.

Cloche with snow

This long commercial cloche got a thin layer of snow. The Brussels sprout plant to its left is fending for itself.

And the hot caps are still doing their job.

hot caps

The three hot caps are protecting the small kale, but the tall Lacinato kale behind it shows wilting from reduced moisture content, a defensive mechanism against damage from the cold. That “dino” kale should perk up after the weather warms.

Meanwhile, in the rear garden, all the season extension devices are white. Not a lot of solar gain getting through them, but the snow makes a good insulator against the cold.

season extension in snow

Season extension devices, covered in white.

Some plants were not bothered at all…

Tall broc

This purple sprouting broccoli is still standing tall.

while others took the seasonal change pretty hard.

Frozen favas

This cover crop blend included fava beans, which had gown to 18 inches but were frozen in the arctic blast. The rest of the mix (cereal rye, crimson clover and Austrian field peas) should bounce back.

And as to the fate of many of the plants, only time will tell. I will not be opening the season extension devices and pulling off their extra blankets until the weather warms back up to its seasonal temperatures of mid-40s daytime/high 30s nighttime.

carrots covered

The carrots got covered with floating row cover and a small cloche. Behind them, a wire mesh holds down a layer of leaf mulch that covers the recently planted garlic crop.


Giving thanks for the garden

Thanksgiving morning I went out early into the garden for a few final herbs for the turkey stuffing, and a warm rain misted my face. I zipped open the cloche to send the breeze through the salad greens, ready for picking.

Cloched salad greens

Bronze oak leaf lettuce, black-seeded Simpson lettuce, spinach and arugula are cozy under a sturdy plastic cloche.

Over at the cold frame, which is bursting with more salad, the soil thermometer read 52 degrees. The tiny Cascadia peas in the back, which I intended to overwinter for next spring, are flowering.

cold frame salad greens

Green deer tongue lettuce, Forellenschluss lettuce and bok choi are the three main crops in the cold frame.

And I took the plunge into the chillier (45 degree) wet soil under the floating row cover to grab some carrots, yellow and orange.

Winter carrots

Chablis yellow carrots and an old standard orange Nantes carrots are sweet and crisp under floating row cover.

I took a tour around the yard to see how the other veggies are faring under my various season extension devices. Found the small Siberian kale (which, in defiance of its name, had been floundering on its own) was looking pretty perky under a row of three “hot caps”: a plastic dome and two dirty yet effective glass bells.

Hot caps

Blue Siberian curly kale under plastic and glass hot caps.

Finally, the dino kale, which did not get the nod as part of the Thanksgiving feast, impressed me as usual with its rich bluish color and bushy sprouting of dark new leaves.

Dino kale

Lacinato “dinosaur” kale standing tall in a bed mulched with straw.

Seeing all the greenery, basking in a warm mid-’50s breeze on a day that was to reach nearly 60, clearly there was a lot to be thankful for.

The rain didn’t dampen my mood as I chopped the herbs into the stuffing mix and readied the turkey for the oven. Note to self: next time, go a little heavier on the herbs: though ours are garden-fresh, they’re just not as pungent as those from our local farmers available at the market.

We sat down to a dinner that included a half-dozen types of produce from our garden, the rest from Northwest farmers, and wines from the region. More thankful feelings all around.

Later we enjoyed a stellar pumpkin pie that Susie made from our own “Cinderella coach,” the heirloom Rouge vif d’Etampes pumpkins that had been decorating our table since Halloween.

As the holiday waned into a big football win by our hometown Seahawks, I saw the warning on Cliff Mass’ weather blog about a cold snap coming. I made a mental note to get out into the yard again on Friday morning to add a little extra protection to the plants.

Cool-season gardening means paying attention to those rumors and reports, and timing it just right to make sure all your effort doesn’t amount to a soggy pile of wilted leaves after a cold snap. Or a bout of snow, which was also in the forecast…

Stoneface in snowStoneface side

Watch ‘The Extended Harvest’ – My New Online Class

I’m very pleased to announce my new online class “The Extended Harvest: Vegetables for Every Season.” The video course just went live. During this season when gardening slows down, I hope you will take some indoor time to watch it.

Extended Harvest class

Get the introductory 50% off price: Sign up today.

It’s on the fun educational site, where you sign up for classes and then can watch them anytime.

Useful site tools make learning easy: revisit the entire class or sections of it whenever you want, as often as you want; use video notes and 30-second rewatch; access materials lists; share projects; and interact with the Craftsy logoinstructor (me!) and other students.

The Craftsy team helped me put together an in-depth look at growing food year round, to complement my book Cool Season Gardener. In seven, 20-minute lessons, you’ll learn everything from building the soil to managing the planting calendar to building season extension devices. And it’s all in high-definition video (filmed in my garden), so you can see all the steps and details.

To introduce the class, we’re offering it at half price! Click on “The Extended Harvest,” then set up your Craftsy account to get started. It would make a great holiday gift (maybe even with the book) for the gardener in your life.

This Craftsy video class was great fun to make, and we filled it with tips and techniques. I hope you’ll enjoy it and use it to help plan next year’s bountiful year-round garden.


Cinderella’s Limo

Susie's pumpkin illustration

An incredible rendering of the Cinderella pumpkin (really an old French squash variety) was done by my wife, Susie Thorness, for my book Edible Heirlooms.

I just figured out what I liked about the story of Cinderella: the transformed pumpkin.

As you will recall, the mistreated heroine of the story needed a coach in which to travel to the ball, once she herself had been transformed into a beautiful maiden. After all, you couldn’t just hoof it up to the big event in your gown. So a pumpkin was transformed into a glittering carriage, elevated on giant, spindly wheels and presided over by a stately coachman (formerly a rat) who drove a team of spirited horses (which had been mice). Now, that was the way to show up at the ball.

And in a moment, the pumpkin became a star. Just as the girl had been overlooked by the family when she just needed a bit of cleaning up to dazzle everyone, so did the plump orange squash simply need to be freed of its viney headdress and swath of shrouding leaves to be seen at its best: rich in color, with a glossy glow, perfectly unique and shapely. Ready for its Rolls Royce makeover.

Cinderella pumpkin

This year’s model, straight off the vine.

It is not the only transformation of a squash into a vessel of higher purpose (or, for that matter, transportation–see giant zucchini car races), but it is perhaps the one with the most imagination. Of the many things around the farm that could have been transformed into a carriage fit for a princess, the pumpkin might have been the most unlikely choice. But an inspired one.

The Cinderella pumpkin was modeled after the French variety Rouge Vif d’Etampes, a slightly flattened, elongated squash with glowing red-orange skin. It is a far cry from the tall, rotund, pale Connecticut Field variety carved up for Jack O’Lanterns on Halloween.

It’s ironic, really, because if any member of the squash family should be the icon for a transformative night of magic and costumes, this Cinderella really has the foot that fits that slipper.


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