Now the late summer Bank Holiday is out of the way, my thoughts have turned to sowing my final batches of salad leaves for the winter. You may think that’s a strange activity but a recent episode of Radio 4’s The Food Programme highlighted the demand for winter salads has increased enormously over the past few years.
I’m not surprised. Nearly three years ago I started the 52 Week Salad Challenge on my blog in January and was amazed to find over 100 people from 9 countries willing to join me in the quest for a year-round salad supply. We found it’s enormously satisfying to pick something fresh and home grown for our sandwiches or supper in the winter months.
Time is of the essence as this month’s sowings needs sufficient time to bulk up before the ever decreasing daylength and plummeting temperatures effectively bring s growth to a halt in late October or November.
There is still time to sow many of the absolute winter stalwarts from now until mid-September. Some space in an unheated greenhouse or a coldframe is all that is needed to ensure some greenery is available for one or two salads per week, or for plenty of sandwiches. If cropping outdoors, then cloches or fleece will be needed for protection.
Last year I grew the equivalent of five 1 metre long rows of leaves (with two to three varieties per row) in pots which gave me a plentiful supply for two people throughout the winter. Sow generously wherever you’re growing and the thinnings will provide a bonus earlier salad crop.
Grow a few plants of each variety listed below and you’ll have a more interesting combination of flavours than anything found in the supermarket. These are the tried and trusted varieties that I and other contributors to the 52 Week Salad Challenge have found most useful.
Oriental leaves are quick to germinate and add a range of flavours to salad. I’ve found mizuna and komatsuna have good mild flavours for adding bulk, with small amounts of the more fiery mustards such as ‘Red giant’ and ‘Green frills’ adding a much needed kick to the taste buds. Mustard ‘Snow in summer’ is another salad challengers’ favourite.
I also like growing root vegetables for their leaves with beetroot ‘Bull’s Blood’ a firm favourite for adding colour as well as taste. Radishes crop quickly and I prefer their peppery leaves to the usual root we find in our salads. Turnip leaves are worth a try too and the feathery tops of carrots are also edible.
On the lettuce front ‘Valdor’ and ‘Winter Density’ are well known for their winter leaves. Last year I also found the smaller leaved cos lettuces such as ‘Little Gem’ and ‘Intred’ stood well over the winter months.
If you’re a fan of peppery tastes, then wild rocket and land cress (sometimes called American cress) are the varieties for you. The latter often survives the winter when grown outside, so it’s tough. Milder tasting possibilities include winter purslane and lamb’s lettuce.
It’s too late to sow radicchio now, but I’ve often found a few relatively cheap plants for sale at my local garden centre at this time of the year, which allows me to catch up. Cold weather sweetens the leaves and turns them a jewel-like red colour which transforms any plate they’re added to – ‘Radicchio di Treviso’ is the variety to look out for.
When harvesting, don’t pull the entire plant for your plate. Pick off the outer leaves and leave a central core so the plant can regenerate itself. This prolongs the harvesting season into April time and ensures you get much more production from your allocated space.
Don’t worry if you find a shortfall during the winter months, your leaf supply can be supplemented very quickly by sprouting seeds such as chickpeas and beansprouts (ready in just a few days) or growing windowsill crops of trendy pea shoots (4-6 weeks).
Michelle Chapman is a gardener, freelance writer and garden blogger based in Chippenham, Wiltshire. She is the author of the award winning blog, Veg Plotting, where she writes about her small town garden, seasonal food and anything else which strikes her whilst up at her allotment. Her blog can be found at www.vegplotting.blogspot.com