Perhaps it’s the contrarian in me: all summer and early fall, when the vegetable garden is at its height and greens are easy to grow, leafy salads hold little appeal. With such an abundance of other, more interesting vegetables, why bother with greens? Who needs lettuce, for example, when tomatoes tempt, cucumbers entice, and sweet corn beckons? Then the first October frost arrives, leveling summer’s bounty, and inevitably just when the garden should be entering a period of well-deserved rest, I suddenly start hungering for all those luscious green leaves. “Well,” you’re probably thinking, “Too late now, Michael. You’ll just have to put up with bland, expensive supermarket fare. Right?”
Well, not quite; if you live in a climate with reasonably temperate weather through the New Year (temperate here being defined as occasional bouts of frost, but no extended periods of hard freeze), or if you have some way to moderate your growing environment such as a cold frame or greenhouse, then you can enjoy the benefit of fresh greens right through the winter – that is if you play your cards right – and limit your selection to that intriguing group of leafy vegetables collectively known as cold weather crops.
Simply put, cold weather crops are those that prefer, or sometimes even require, cool weather to produce a good harvest. These include such familiar vegetables as kale, cabbage, chard, and, fortunately for us, most lettuces and leafy greens. It’s these last that are of particular interest now, not only because they are easy to grow, but their maturation time frame is so short that you can literally start harvesting salads a month after planting.
If you’re one of those lucky people who live where the weather cooperates, you can sow your seeds directly outdoors according to the packet instructions. If however, like me, you need to plant under cover of glass, I have found that the best way to maximize your harvest is to sow directly into those plastic flats that you see at most garden centers. Simply fill your flat with a sterile, soil-less potting mix, water heavily, and let the flat drain thoroughly. (Watering first insures that you’ll get an evenly moist soil mix, and also eliminates the annoying tendency of small seeds to wash away after planting.) Next, sow your seeds, and cover with a very light dusting of soil (most salad seeds are quite tiny and don’t need to be buried deeply.) Finally, cover your flat with a clear plastic lid (generally sold with the trays) and place your flats in a sunny, cool environment where temperatures won’t dip below 45 degrees. After germination, thin according to packet instructions when one inch high, and within a month or so you’ll have an abundant crop of leaves to harvest. One caveat however: just as outdoors, most greens have a tendency to bolt, or go to flower very quickly, especially if exposed to warm temperatures. Once this happens, the leaves become tough and bitter, and are no longer edible. Thus for continual harvest throughout the winter, you’ll need to reseed your flats every three weeks or so.
So what kinds of greens can you grow at this time of year? Here are some of my favorites:
Technically, mesclun is not a green, but a mix of various different greens. Originating in Southern France and Italy, mesclun only became popular in this country a few decades ago, with the rise of the health food movement. The exact components of mesclun vary according to how “hot” you want it – mild to spicy – but in general mesclun will contain a selection of endive, chicory, arugula, lettuces, and other tasty greens to provide that signature bite. If you like mesclun, but have never grown your own, you’re really missing out – the zest and zing of homegrown will blow the supermarket product you’re used to right out of the water.
Hiroko Shimbo, the famed New York-based Japanese chef and culinary teacher, first introduced me to mizuna years ago on The Victory Garden, and things haven’t been the same in my salad bowl since. I simply can’t get enough of this spicy mustard relative, long prized by the Japanese not only for its flavor, but also for its finely cut decorative leaves.
Delicious is the only way to describe the smallish rounded leaves of what the Germans call Winter Purslane. Although common in salads across Europe, the radish-like flavor of Claytonia is almost impossible to experience here unless you grow your own. Claytonia is also an excellent candidate for sprouts.
Once quite popular on American tables, cutting celery – which unlike it’s more popular cousin is grown not for it’s stem but its leaves – is rather hard to find these days. Sown and used exactly like parsley, cutting celery makes a tangy addition to both soup and salad.
Tatsoi, or tah tsai is another mustard relative whose spinach like leaves form an attractive rosette. Long prized by the Japanese, the mild flavor of tatsoi adds a delicious, succulent crunch to any salad.
‘Rouge D’Hiver’ Lettuce
For me anyway, a salad without lettuce just isn’t a salad, and for late season growing, ‘Rouge D’Hiver’ (French for Winter Red) is hard to beat. This red-leaved romaine type forms loose heads excellent for harvesting several leaves at a time. What’s more, the variety is extremely cold tolerant, and maintains its red color right the table.
So this fall, as the brown and gold of autumn slowly settle upon our landscapes like so many leaves on the lawn, remember: there is a host of luscious leaf vegetables still waiting to grace your table. Whether you have an acre plot or measure your growing space in inches, all it takes is a bit of forethought and a little preparation to extend the green of spring right through the winter in your garden.
Important growing tip: If you are planting in the period between mid-November and January when the days are at their shortest, you may find that adding a bit of artificial light for several hours a day, in the form of a fluorescent fixture 4-6 inches above the leaf surface, greatly speeds the maturation process.