“What is more delicious than a crisp salad on a summer day, especially if you have raised all the ingredients yourself, and pick them fresh and dewy at dusk or in the early morning!” -Jean Hersey from her book Carefree Gardening. Although this statement is absolutely true, imagine this salad, harvested in midwinter, on a cold, frosty morning. With a little planning and proper protection, you too can harvest salad all winter long!
In summer, we can start to take our garden harvest for granted. Bowls of lettuce, endless tomatoes, gobs of green beans! But in winter, how we long for something fresh from the earth. When I started this blog, I set out to help others learn the basics of winter salad production. I don’t consider myself to be a scientific person, so I try to relay information in simple terms. No matter how big or small your garden is, it is possible to harvest salad all winter long!
When To Plant
If you want to grow lettuce and other salad greens through the winter, some advanced planning needs to happen. As you clear your garden in September, look for a space that you could plant some greens. This spot would need to be easily covered and accessible during the winter months. As soon as you have picked your salad greens plot, add some compost to refresh the soil for the new lettuce crop. Planting can happen immediately.
What To Plant
One important thing about winter gardening are the varieties that you choose. The obvious plant choices here are lettuce, kale, arugula, mustard greens, spinach and beet greens. The key is to pick cold hardy varieties that actually improve with the freeze/thaw effect of a typical winter day. I order most of my garden seeds from a Fedco Seeds in Waterville, Maine. It seems like almost all of the seed companies are offering varieties suited for winter culture these days. As you go down the lists, there should be notations for these types of seeds. Fedco uses a little snowflake at the bottom of their descriptions. I recommend their ‘Winter Lettuce Mix’, ‘Cardinale’ a Batavian variety, ‘Rouge d’Hiver’, ‘Lollo Rossa’ and a Bibb/romaine called ‘Winter Density’. Of course, any given winter I may grow all kinds of combinations. As you gain some experience, you will discover what works for you in your area.
Most spinach, kale and arugula varieties are perfect for winter growing. When you make your seeds order this coming season, be sure to plan for a later planting of winter greens.
Protecting Your Salad Crop
As cooler weather approaches, it is time to start protecting your baby plants. Enter floating row cover, a spun polyester fabric found at most garden centers or you can order some online. This self-venting fabric allows sunlight and moisture in while giving the plants a protective layer against the elements. Here in Maine, by late October, a second layer is needed. I have beds planted in our unheated greenhouse and a single raised bed outside. If you need to cover an outside bed with a second layer, consider bending some re-bar and pushing them into the ground for a quick greenhouse. Add a layer of 6 mil. plastic or greenhouse plastic anchored to the ground with some rocks and you have your very own winter growing environment!
Our permanent greenhouse is easy. All I have to do is set up my floating row cover. This is most effective suspended above the greens. The two layers add an extra amount of cold protection. Anything with an arch to it will work to keep the fabric up. Small hoops can be purchased from gardening supply companies. I’ve tried using small tree branches but they will rip your fabric. I recently picked up a few hula hoops at the dollar store and cut them in half as you can see pictured above. I think this is working well!
If you look closely you can see all of the greens growing happily under the row cover.
These are a few of the beds inside what Eliot Coleman calls the “cold house”. At night the temps are the same as outside. During the day though, especially after mid February, temperatures soar to around 80 degrees Fahrenheit. This promotes growth of the greens. It seems like before this time, the plants just merely exist, just waiting for that sun to get higher. I learned most everything about season extension from the book The Winter Harvest Handbook.
The greenhouse is also a great place to winter over parsley, scallions or any other cold hardy plants. Just move them from the garden before things get too cold out there.
On our outside raised bed, we built a temporary greenhouse with a wooden frame. It stands up to a heavy snow load and you don’t have to worry about it. If there is a lot of snow cover, it can be very hard to get into. With the greenhouse, as long as you can shovel to it, it can be accessed. One of the main reasons we do an additional bed outside of the greenhouse is that we can harvest the outside bed until sometime in July. The greenhouse heats up in late spring and the greens tend to bolt. The outside bed is uncovered in May which prolongs the greens.
Both setups are perfect for successive planting of radishes. These were planted in October.
The salad harvest can be small during our darker months, like December and January. As that February sun gets higher and the days get a bit longer, the tiny leaves start to grow. The conditions make them even sweeter. Harvest after 10:oo a.m. for best results. Cut individual leaves with scissors or a knife. Wash greens in very cold water, spin dry and place in a bag with a paper towel. They will keep for a week or two depending on the conditions.
To learn more about my season extension journey, you can go to my earlier posts Self-Proclaimed Salad Green Queen, Winter In The Hoophouse and Project Greenhouse. It is amazing to see first hand what can be done with these unheated structures. Thanks for stopping by Everlongardener! I think that you may have some ideas for next year by now! If you are anything like me, you will be wanting to try something new!