Most of you know by now that here at Everlongardener, salad greens make the world go round. About ten years ago I was introduced to growing salad greens year round in an unheated greenhouse. Well, as they say, the rest is history. Some of you may be hesitant to try 4 season salad gardening. In this weeks blog, I will tell you exactly what to expect if you give these techniques a try.
Although I call myself the Self Proclaimed Salad Green Queen, I’m not growing this fabulous stuff to feed the masses, I just happen to have salad greens growing throughout the whole year. For some of you in southern climates this may seem hard to believe. Gardening on the colder side of the calendar goes back a few hundred years so it’s not a new concept.
What To Do
By planting cold tolerant lettuce, kale, arugula and spinach seeds in late summer and early fall, plants can become established enough to survive even a harsh winter. This past year, I didn’t get most of my seeds in the ground until nearly October. They grew, but it was slow going. To ensure success, seeds should be planted when it’s still somewhat warm out.
Protection from the elements is key for salad green success. If you have access to a greenhouse or hoophouse, you are in business. But what if that is totally out of reach for you? Are there any alternatives? A cold frame or basic hoop will do. For a cold frame, simply sow seeds in the existing soil. If you plan to construct your own small hoop, plant your seeds directly into the garden.
To make your own mini hoop, you will need some 6 mil plastic, something to make the hoops from and a few heavy objects like rocks, bricks or small bags of sand. There are many videos out there on constructing a quick hoop. Just search using the phrase ‘quick hoop videos’for many different ideas. We use our 12×20 greenhouse but also utilize one outdoor raised bed. Since lettuce bolts quicker in spring in the permanent greenhouse, we supplement with the outdoor bed. The past few years we have used a structure made from scrap lumber and plastic. Next year, we hope to make a cover that can be easily moved from bed to bed. A design is in the works!
Of course, this homemade greenhouse isn’t very attractive but it works really well. As cooler weather approaches, a second layer of insulation is needed. The insulation must be suspended over the salad greens. Use thin metal hoops or even half of a hula hoop will work. Just push each end into the soil and you are ready for the covering. The best product is floating row cover. This fabric is breathable and allows moisture in. It is also self-venting, which is handy.
This is a photo of my raised bed garden under the plastic. It’s amazing how well protected the greens really are through the winter. This system creates a zone within a zone. Very simple but highly effective. Mice and other rodents can be a problem. They will search for food anywhere they can find it in the winter. I keep traps set under the row covers. They especially seem to like spinach! Good taste I guess.
What Happens Under the Hoop
Moisture is another factor. Sometimes, even with a cover, a bed can become too dry or too moist. For dry conditions, you can water on a warm day or as with my greenhouse, I shovel some snow onto the stone floor. As it evaporates, the snow adds to the overall moisture level of the greenhouse. When conditions are too moist, simply vent the structure on a day where temps are above freezing.
There are times during the winter that I just let things go. I usually take a break from harvesting greens in January and start again in late February. If I had enough planted, I could harvest through those colder months but I just let things rest. The sun is so low at that time, greens will cease to grow. If you pick it all, it will not start growing until the sun gets higher in the sky. This past winter, my young plants were quite small so I let them be.
So, what happens when the days start to get longer? Growth starts to slowly happen. In late February, I can pick a small bowl and by mid March twice as much. By April, we are back in full swing and I can pick one or two large bowls a week. These wintered greens have such delicious flavors that I have become a salad snob of sorts. There is something about the weather that makes the greens so tasty and sweet!
It would be hard to really break down the exact cost of winter salad growing. Seeds will cost $1-4 per packet. Multiply that by how many types and varieties you want to grow. Plastic can be free or cost around $10. Check with your local hardware store or greenhouse for scraps. Real greenhouse plastic is very durable but costly. The floating row cover fabric is about $12 per package. After cutting, you can cover many beds from one package. As for your structure, you can make one for free, like the one pictured above or you could purchase a greenhouse kit. Just make sure that whatever you make can withstand a snow load. My large greenhouse was given to me so all I needed to purchase was the plastic. I’ve had the same plastic on the greenhouse since 2009. Not too bad. If you consider store bought salad greens are priced from $3 for conventional greens to $5 or more for organically grown, you will quickly recoup your supply costs.
For the last month or so, we have been harvesting two bowls of salad greens per week. It happens to be some of the best salad I have ever eaten. Even though things are booming in the salad garden right now, I know that summer heat is on it’s way and it will soon squelch my delicious greens. I’m usually able to pick until July from the winter greens. The summer, heat tolerant varieties have been sown in between the rows of winter lettuce now. With Succession Planting, we can ensure continual harvests for the whole summer.
I’m so glad that I’ve been able to share the ins and outs of 4 season salad gardening this week. Winter salad production is at the core of my gardening life. If you are interested in more in-depth reading on 4 season growing, check out my inspiration Eliot Coleman and his book The Winter Harvest Handbook. My latest favorite book is called Year-Round Vegetable Gardener by Niki Jabbour. If you truly want to immerse yourself into winter salad production, check out these fine publications. Feeding your family from your own garden is one of the most satisfying things! Thanks for stopping by this week!