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.