August 22, 1997

This current article is aimed at those folks who live where the seasons are well-defined. If you live in some tropical paradise, I'm afraid you get the next two weeks off. Next winter, just sit back in your beach chair, take a sip of your Mai Tai, and laugh at the thought of us slogging through the rain and snow.

Many people don't realize that, for fall or winter salads, one needs to sow the seeds quite far in advance. This is due to the rapidly-decreasing daylength we start seeing about August. For many hardy plants, total daylight is the limiting factor in how much they can grow. The timings I mention in this article are what I use in my western Washington state garden; You may need to sow these varieties earlier or later, depending on how far north or south of the 47th parallel you are (Note: If you live in the southern hemisphere, you are going to have to turn this around a bit!). Remember, though: Salad greens are rather forgiving in terms of timing. If you are "too late" to sow at the right time, just plan on having more, smaller, plants for the winter! They'll still taste as good. Also remember that making several sowings, about a week apart, will help you learn what works best in your garden.

If you live where the winter temperatures go below 0F, you can still grow many of these greens. A good cold frame will protect plants to much colder temperatures than they could survive in the open. You might think a cold frame is expensive, but if you compare it to what you spend on winter produce, I think you'll find it will pay for itself. Maybe the greens will last all winter, and maybe they won't; but certainly you can harvest them well into that season.

Lettuce (Lactuca sativa) is actually fairly hardy. People think of it in terms of spring and summer, but it will take fairly heavy frosts. Most varieties of this plant can survive down into the low 20s (Fahrenheit). If I want full-size plants for winter, I sow it the first half of August. There can be some value to sowing later; immature lettuce plants seem to be hardier, plus they are better protected by heat coming off the ground.

Leaf endives and escaroles (Chichorium spp.) are really nice winter greens. The cold weather sweetens up the leaves quite a bit. These chicory relatives are also rather hardy, easily surviving to 10F or lower. Radicchio also belongs to this genus, but since I am growing it for the first time this season, I don't really want to make assumptions on how it will fare in winter (It seems, from what information is available, to vary according to the variety). I also start these the first half of August. Some varieties are rather densely leafed, and will cope with rain better if given some sort of cover.

Spinach (Spinacia oleracea) is another hardy green. It can take single-digit temperatures; but it's usefulness can be limited by its susceptibility to various mildews and rots. If you can protect it with some sort of cover, spinach will grow much better. Spinach is fairly fast growing, and will size up from any August sowing.

Kale (Brassica spp.) is the quintessential winter green. If you've only eaten store-bought kale, your concept of the plant may have been unfairly biased. Some kales really are tender enough to put into salads, if you grow them yourself. Many varieties of kale are hardy down to around 0F. In addition, most kales are strikingly beautiful plants, and can provide some winter structure in your garden. Note that the garnish kales are edible, but don't taste all that good! Grow the salad varieties instead. If I start kale in mid-July, the plants are quite large by winter.

Arugula (Eruca vesicaria) has been all the rage lately among the trendy set, but it has been around a long time as a "hippie" green. This weedy little crucifer can take temperatures into the teens quite easily. Like most members of the cabbage family, arugula tastes much better after having been hit by frost several times. Sorry, Californians, you really don't know what this is supposed to taste like! Arugula can be sown in August, but will do quite well if started the first half of September.

Mache (Valerianella locusta), also called corn salad or lamb's lettuce, is an edible weed. There are large and small varieties, but none of them get very big. The main problem with mache is getting it to germinate in summer, since it doesn't like very warm soil. I sow it in mid-August, and keep it very wet until it germinates.

Garden cress (Barbarea verna) is a great biennial salad green. It can be sown as early as mid-spring, and will produce leaves through the summer, fall, and winter. This cress can also be sown as late as mid-August and still mature. I'm not sure of it's absolute hardiness, but it has survived into the low teens in my garden.

I certainly hope thinking about this topic will help you cool down in these dog days of summer!


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