Salads may be the epitome of sunny summer days, but there’s a lesser-known band of salad leaves, full of interesting flavors and textures that will faithfully offer fresh pickings for winter. Able to withstand frost and standing firm through the grim weather, they’re hardy souls most definitely worth growing. Read on or watch our video to discover four of the very best super-hardy winter salad leaves...
Why Grow Winter Salad Leaves?
Fresh leaves in the depths of winter are a real treat. While they won’t give masses of pickings, what they do produce is truly appreciated. Then, as the weather warms up in spring harvests come thick and fast, at a time when there’s very little else to pick.
Sow winter salad leaves in late summer or early autumn so they go into winter at just the right size: big enough to survive the chill but not so big that lush growth is clobbered by hard frosts.
Most winter salad leaves can grow outside in mild or temperate climates, but you’ll get more leaves if you can offer some protection from the weather, for example by growing salad leaves in a glass or plastic greenhouse, or under row covers.
So here’s our pick of the hardiest and most reliable winter salad leaves.
1. Mache, aka Lamb’s Lettuce or Corn Salad
Mache, which also goes by the names lamb’s lettuce or corn salad, produces tender leaves with a smooth texture. This is the hardiest salad leaf of our quartet and grows very well outdoors.
2. Land Cress
Land cress, sometimes known as American cress, has rich, dark leaves that taste similar to watercress. It’s one of the quickest winter salad crops, giving leaves to pick as soon as eight weeks from sowing.
3. Claytonia, aka Miner’s Lettuce or Winter Purslane
Claytonia, also called miner’s lettuce or winter purslane, grows soft, succulent leaves and, come spring, tiny white flowers that also make for good eating. Use it in salads or cook it as an alternative to spinach.
You don’t need running water to grow watercress, so long as you can ensure the soil it’s growing in is consistently damp, which shouldn’t be too difficult in winter. Watercress’ mildly peppery leaves make it salad royalty!
Direct Sowing Winter Salad Crops
Winter salad leaves are well suited to sowing direct into ground recently vacated by summer crops. Remove any weeds first, as they might smother your plants, then rake the soil to a fine tilth.
Mark out drills according to the instructions on the seed packet. Depending on what you’re sowing, rows will be spaced between 9-12 inches (22-30cm) apart. Sow the seeds very thinly then water them. Once they’re up, thin the seedlings in stages until plants are about 6-8 inches (15-20cm) apart within the row.
Sowing Winter Salad Leaves into Plug Trays
Winter salad leaves are also prime candidates for starting off in plug trays. At sowing time ground is often still occupied by summer crops. But sow into plug trays and your salad leaves may be started off away from the vegetable garden, giving earlier crops a chance to finish. Plug trays also reduce the risk of slug damage at the vulnerable seedling stage and produce sturdy young plants able to outcompete weeds.
Fill trays with general-purpose potting soil then firm it in, adding a little more if needed. Firming in the potting soil creates small depressions in each of the plugs, which are ideal for sowing into. Drop about two seeds into each plug. Some seeds like claytonia are tiny, so don’t worry if you end up with more – you can always thin out the seedlings after they’ve germinated to leave just the strongest in each plug.
Once you’re done sowing, cover the seeds with a very thin layer of more potting soil, then label your tray so you don’t forget what you’ve sown – essential if you’re sowing more than one type of plant in a tray! Water the tray with a gentle spray, or place plugs into trays of water to soak it up from below. Remove trays from the water once they’re ready.
Grow the seedlings on until the roots have filled their plugs, when it’s time to plant them. If the ground is still occupied by other crops, you can re-pot into bigger pots or plug trays, buying you another week or two before planting outside.
Planting Winter Salad Leaves
Set your winter salad leaves out at the recommended spacing. Planting in a block, so plants are the same distance apart in both directions, is perhaps easiest. Allow 7 inches (17cm) both ways for mache, 8 inches (20cm) for claytonia, and 9 inches (22cm) for land cress and watercress. Dig holes into prepared soil, enriched with organic matter such as compost if it’s likely to have needed a boost after summer, then pop the young plants in. Fill the soil back around them, firm in and water.
Caring for Winter Salad Leaves
Weeds and slugs are the enemies of winter salad leaves. Keep on top of both. Slug traps, filled with beer to attract them, work to a point, but keeping growing areas clear of weeds and debris, while planting at the correct spacing should do a lot to deter slugs.
How to Harvest Winter Salad Leaves
Harvest leaves once plants have formed mounded clumps. Cut stems with a sharp knife, taking care to leave the lowest leaves and those towards the center untouched so they can continue to grow. As growth picks up in spring, so do the harvests and how much you can remove from plants on each occasion.
By mid spring plants will be flowering. Young flower stalks may be eaten but in time they will become tough. At this point it’s time to dig up and remove winter salad crops to make way for your summer staples.
If you thought winter meant time to retire the vegetable garden till spring, think again. Winter salad leaves will keep the fresh pickings coming. Tell us down below if you’re growing some of these sensational salad crops this winter. What are you growing and how?