I’m thinking about sowing some salad leaves for the winter. Yes, you read that correctly. It really is perfectly possible to grow winter salad leaves, even if it gets quite cold.
Green leaves are a staple in this household and I certainly miss them if they’re not around. A home grown salad mixture beats a bag of salad from the supermarket hands down – it’s got the taste, the texture and the variety. You can sow winter salad seeds between late August and mid-November, as the soil is still warm and damp. Or you could plant plugs of small plants.
Choose and prepare the place to grow winter salad leaves
Winter salad leaves like:
- a sheltered, sunny position so that seedlings are protected from cold winter winds
- good drainage so that seedlings don’t freeze in pools of water.
Prepare garden soil by digging it over and mixing in well-rotted manure or garden compost. This will add nutrients and help the soil retain moisture. Rake it to a fine tilth (consistency).
Many gardeners grow their winter salad leaves in a box or other container, just outside the back door. That’s because it can be less than appealing to fight up the garden in the winter rain and wind to harvest a handful of leaves. For containers, use a mixture of multi-purpose and John Innes composts.
How to grow and harvest winter salad leaves
Sow seeds in short, shallow rows and cover with soil. Water the rows and keep the soil just moist. Remember to put in a label to remind you what you’ve sown! For a good continuous crop, sow a few seeds every four weeks.
Keep an eye on the weather forecast and keep your seeds warm on very cold or frosty nights by covering them with fleece, a cloche or a mini plastic tunnel.
You can take leaves from cut-and-come-again lettuces when the plants are about 5cm (2in) high. Alternatively, you can cut the whole head off when the plant is about 15cm (6in) high. If you leave a 3cm (1in) stump, new leaves should grow back.
If you find your salad leaves too bitter, cover the plants with an upturned flowerpot for a few days. This will ‘blanch’ the leaves – making them paler and less bitter.
Varieties to try
Winter lettuce are particularly hardy and are selected for low light conditions. Sow 'Arctic King' (a large light green, crunchy 'butterhead') by mid September for best results. Sow dark green 'Valdor' which has a tight core of leaves in September and October and pick it 10-12 weeks later.
You could also try salad endive (like 'Bianca Riccia da Taglio') which is hardier than lettuce.
Oriental greens are remarkably hardy and form the basis of a number of winter salad seed mixtures. Mizuna is ready within three to four weeks of sowing, and plants will continue to produce for months. It’s tolerant of cold weather and gives you high and rapid returns from a small space. Mibuna is hardy to -10C. Varieties of mustard are very easily grown in cooler weather. They are very spicy when raw but when cooked they have a rich, slightly spicy flavour. They are left alone by many pests which is good news in my garden!
Don’t forget pak choi and Chinese leaves.
What about lamb’s lettuce (also known as corn salad or maché)? It’s a reliable winter leaf crop and grows about 12cm (4in) tall. Sow it in late summer or autumn and it will be ready about 12 weeks later.
Or land cress, a good substitute for watercress and excellent in winter salads? Harvest it after eight weeks.
Purslane (winter or golden) is very crunchy. Salad burnet tastes of cucumber. Texsel (or Ethiopian) greens taste similar to spinach.
If you haven’t grown them before, it’s definitely worth experimenting with winter salad leaves. Even a small handful can transform a run-of-the-mill salad.
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