Unlike many of you, we are having an exceptionally mild winter this year. We have had few frosts so far and they did not even kill the calendulas.
My husband is so longing for snow that he starts checking the weather forecast every ten minutes as soon as the temperature drops below zero. I even caught him getting out of bed to look out of the window on a night when there was a (very slim) chance of snow. So far, no luck.
I know many of you are experiencing quite the opposite weather conditions and might want to trade with us. But, like most things in life, both very cold and very mild winters have their upsides and downsides. The probable outcome of a mild winter is a huge slug population in the next gardening season – something I am definitely not looking forward to. Other pests and disease spores will also be unchecked by frost. On the bright side, thanks to the mild temperature, we can harvest a wider selection of greens for our winter salads, many of which would have been killed in a colder winter (like the one we had last year).
But even if the winter is very cold, choosing the right plants and growing some under the protection of our simple cold frame, we can harvest fresh salads from the garden throughout the winter. Somewhat surprisingly maybe, winter salads are more varied taste-wise than salads in summer: there are hot and peppery mustards, bitter chicories and mild, aniseed flavored herbs.
Many winter salad plants are also reliable self-sowers, so once you’ve introduced them into your garden, they will come back every year.
To harvest salads in winter you have to plan ahead – in our climate most of these plants need to be sown in late August or early September.
Here is a selection of our favorites:
Corn salad (Valerianella locusta) also called “mache” or “lamb’s lettuce”
The pretty rosettes of nutty leaves are a big favorite in our household. In my experience, this is a plant that detests pampering – it grows better self-seeded between the tiles on the path than in the neat rows I sow in well prepared ground. When self-seeded, the plants are usually too crowded to grow out to full size, so I often replant them to about 10 cm (4 inches) apart. Or I harvest the bigger plants whole which leaves room for the other plants to grow. Corn salad is very hardy, it survives any frosts we ever get here without protection.
Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium)
The dainty lace-like leaves of chervil belie its hardiness. Chervil, too, self-seeds prolifically. I often replant some of the plants under the protection of the cold frame, where they will regrow faster after picking. The mild, aniseed-flavored leaves are a nice contrast to the hot mustards.
Land cress (Barbarea verna)
A good substitute for watercress in gardens without flowing water – land cress has much the same peppery taste, though the leaves are a bit coarser. Land cress forms dense clumps and can be picked as a cut-and come-again. We grow it under the protection of fleece. As soon as the temperature rises in spring, it will run to seed and you can either save the seeds to sow them where you want, or let the plants grow where they want.
Mustards (Brassica juncea)
These days seed catalogues offer many varieties of mustard, with different leave shapes, in different colors and with different degrees of hot in their taste. “Bekana” for example is a relatively mild mustard, while others like the “Osaka Purple” are pretty hot. I like to sow parallel rows of different varieties 10 cm (4 inches) apart and harvest them as cut-and-come-again. It is worth bearing in mind that small, immature leaves are much more cold tolerant than mature leaves and repeated harvesting will keep the leaves small. In cold winters, mustards do a lot better with a little protection (e.g. fleece or in the cold frame).
Radicchio (Cichorium intybus)
Getting these red chicories to heart is a bit of a challenge. Timing is important (I sow them around May/June) but even so, they often fail to form hearts. If they do, you get the partially blanched, crisp inside leaves which are only mildly bitter, otherwise you just learn to appreciate the more bitter outer leaves. As a part of mixed salads, chicories are a valuable addition both in terms of flavor and looks.
Other hardy leaves to pick for salads in winter: winter purslane, chard, small kale leaves, parsley, curly mallow(only in very mild winters)