Although winter typically means a time for roasts, stews, casseroles and soups, it is also desirable to maintain a good intake of green vegetables. Whilst British weather may seem to mitigate against home-grown varieties, this need not be the case. With a little care and expertise, many varieties can be grown successfully over even the coldest months. Here we focus on winter salad leaves, which are perfectly capable of providing you with an almost continuous supply of green goodness.
A little forward planning goes a long way. Late summer is the right time to begin preparations for your winter salads. Mulching the beds in which your plants will grow helps to lock in essential moisture.
When it comes to choosing your plants, you will find that hardy varieties of existing favourites, such as lambs lettuce, are readily available and are well equipped to cope with cold weather; however, you may also wish to try growing more unusual species. A visit to a good garden centre should throw up some interesting options, with winter purslane and salad burnet two to look out for.
It is usually cheaper to buy seeds than plug plants, but don’t forget to factor in the cost of suitable compost. If you are growing your plants from seed, sow them in seed trays prior to planting out to give them the best chance of successful and vigorous growth. You want to sow them in sufficient time to ensure that your seedlings or – if you have nurtured them to a greater size – plug plants go into the ground in autumn while the soil still retains some of summer’s warmth. Protect them from winter winds by choosing a sheltered spot that also gets a good amount of whatever sunlight is available. Make sure that the ground you choose has good drainage, as soil waterlogged with icy rainfall can kill plants. Dig the soil over lightly and, if necessary, add some well-rotted compost before planting out your seedlings.
A good rule of thumb is to plant your seedlings at intervals of 10cm between plants and 20cm between rows; however, check the precise requirements on the seed packet, as recommended spacings can vary. You want to cover your plants with a cloche during very cold nights; homemade versions can work just as well as pricier bought structures. The temperature inside a good cloche stays a few degrees warmer than the outside air temperature, which helps to encourage plant growth and provides protection from freezing temperatures. Additionally, the cloche provides a measure of protection from the weather. Don’t forget to remove the cloche during daylight hours, as soil covered by plastic can turn mouldy and rot the roots of your plants.
Rainfall may be sufficient to keep your plants watered; in the absence of rain, you will need to remember to water them yourself. Similarly, just because it is winter does not mean that weeds won’t grow; if they do, remove them with a hoe before they have a chance to crowd out your plants.
If necessary, most varieties of winter salad will keep in the fridge for a day or two; however, they are always best, and tastiest, when eaten fresh from the garden.