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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And I took the plunge into the chillier (45 degree) wet soil under the floating row cover to grab some carrots, yellow and orange.
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.
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.
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…
Walking with a friend through her country garden recently, I raved about the long, lush rows, and she commented that her husband loves to plant, and gets all excited over the seedlings in the spring. I can feel that, but why leave all the thrill behind until next year?
In our mild climate, late summer is a great time to get fall and winter vegetables in the ground, and recapture that feeling of spring. You can even sow some veggies now that you’ll be eating next spring, with a technique called overwintering.
In the first two weeks of September, especially with the weather we’re having, many gardeners can still plant fall salad greens. You’ll have more success if you have a warm microclimate and raised beds, or if you’re willing to cover the crop with a cloche or cold frame. And to get a good start, pay close attention to keeping the bed lightly moist as the seeds germinate – a challenge if the weather continues warm and dry.
Lettuce will pop out of the ground now. I’ve seen germination in as few as 4 days, compared with 10 to 14 days in the spring. They may get a great start, but if the weather turns cool, their growth will slow down. After all, the days are getting noticeably shorter now.
Expect to cover your more tender greens by early October, and keep them covered to protect from frost or heavy winter rains.
So prepare for fall salads by planting a mix of hardy lettuces, from cut-and-come-again leaf varieties to butterheads that will form loose bunches or small romaine varieties. I like Green Deer Tongue, Marvel of Four Seasons, Little Gem, Rouge d’Hiver, Merlot, Winter Density and Winter Marvel. These will keep well into the new year with protection.
One technique that I borrow from Thomas Jefferson is to plant lettuce in succession for a longer harvest. Our esteemed horticulturalist president advised people to plant a thimbleful of lettuce every Monday. A bit too much for our home use, but the theory is sound: plant a pinch of lettuce seed every week or so through the fall to keep the harvest coming.
Go beyond lettuce to the many other hardy fall greens too.
Corn salad is a very tender leafy green that is surprisingly hardy in the garden. Plant it in September and October and you’ll be eating its juicy leaves through winter and into spring.
Asian mustards are stars of the Maritime garden in winter. Start them in the ground or in flats through September for greens all fall, winter and spring. Sow several types for variety. Look for an Asian stir-fry mix in the seed racks,
or try these varieties: Mizuna, Green-in-the-Snow, Osaka Purple, Tatsoi and Komatsuna.
Arugula, aka Rocket, is another spicy, leafy green to sow now. Like mustard greens, it will stand in the garden without protection through most of our winter weather. You’ll be harvesting its peppery leaves all winter, and then get spicy flowers early in spring.
If you see kale or collard starts in the nurseries, you can still try those as well. Transplanted this late, they probably won’t achieve their full potential, but rather overwinter as small plants. You can snip a few leaves, but in the spring they’ll shoot up and go to seed, producing wonderful edible flower buds.
Finally, spinach varieties such as Winter Bloomsdale or Savoy can be planted now for overwintering as small rosettes, and you’ll get an early spring crop. They will need to be covered with a cloche or cold frame to keep them from straggling.
Clear some space, head to the nursery for seeds or starts, and take some time to plant fall greens now, so as summer comes to an end, the sowing thrill will not be gone.