growing salad for winter
In the spring and summer, there are few things I like more than growing salad so I can take my big colander out into the garden to pick a good selection of salad. But come the rain and cold of autumn and winter, the pleasure of harvesting from the veg patch diminishes.
In the school here at Perch Hill, when we're growing salad for 20 or 30 people, the garden is the only place where we'll easily get carrier bags full to feed everyone in the winter; but for a family supper, I only need three or four handfuls of leaves.
Week by week as it grows colder, wetter and windier, the idea of a bag of supermarket salad – all picked, washed and ready to pour out into a bowl – becomes increasingly attractive. Particularly if you garden on clay – as I do – when even a quick run down into the garden will coat your shoes in a platform of mud. So, if you want to grow small, family-size amounts of salad, why not use boxes rather than beds in the garden, placed right outside your back door, or on your brightest window ledge.
It's a matter of bringing your salad to you – but without giving in to the shop-bought version.Home grown salad is 100% tastier, more textured and varied, and even in the late autumn and winter, exceptionally easy to grow. With only tiny amounts of time and no garden space, every one of us can grow fantastic salad.
Once sown, if grown outside, the rain does the watering for you, so all you need to do is the harvest.
How to sow
Find a friendly fishmonger, greengrocer or wine merchant and ask them if they have any decent sized – at least 8in deep – wooden or polystyrene boxes or crates or make your own salad bed from willow borders.
Knock several drainage holes in the bottom, fill the bed with compost and sow your salad into it. Then, once every six weeks or so through the winter, sow another handful of seeds. Packed like this, salad plants crop for a shorter time than when grown in the ground, but it's still worth doing. Cover the boxes with cling film to enclose the moisture and put them somewhere warm.
They will germinate more quickly on a heated base if you have a propagator or heated propagator mat, but it's not essential. A warm room or cellar is fine, but grown in the dark, you'll need to check every 12 hours for signs of germination.
When to pick
Move the seedlings into the light as soon as there are any signs of green and once they are through, take the cling film off. Make sure the compost is moist, but not dripping wet – there's a huge demand on the compost in these small boxes – and they need to be regularly picked.
Allow the plants to reach about 4in and then start cutting. Begin at one end of the box, and as long as you have enough boxes to not pick from the same one too often, by the time you come to the other side of that box, the leaves where you started harvesting a couple of weeks before will have regrown. You should get five or six cuts from the same root stock before they collapse exhausted.
What to grow
Until this year, I've never had success with sowing mixed packs of salad seeds. With every one I had tried, two or three quick and strong-growing varieties in the selection quickly outgrow and smother the slower-growing, often tastier types, so you end up with a boring combination. These mixtures don't seem to be put together with enough thought about how the plants grow.
This year, Bea, our main gardener at Perch Hill, mixed up combinations based on her experience of growing salads over many years, and she's come up with a selection that is ideal for sowing now as the weather starts to change.
They have been a huge success and we've already been picking from them for a month, and they're still going strong.
At this time of year, you need the truly hardy varieties that will grow well outside your door, even if your winters get very cold.
There are 10 leaves in Bea's winter selection which give an excellent range of colours, tastes, textures and shapes.
The mustards include 'Red Frills', which tastes of new potatoes, and 'Golden Streaks'. These are much better in a closely planted mix than 'Red Giant', which is hot and delicious, but a strong-growing brute that quickly outgrows the others.
Then there's the stalwart 'Mizuna' and its straight-leaved brother 'Mibuna', which is hardy to 14F
(-10C) at least, and a leaf chicory called 'Grumolo Rossa'.
We also tried one in its own box that is bright green and sweet, and meant to be excellent for cutting as a baby leaf, called 'Zuccherina di Trieste' – which is rare among the chicories in that it grows quickly enough to keep up with the rest and so won't be crowded out.
We also have the pretty cress 'Bubbles', with its gathered and crinkled leaf; winter purslane and salad rocket, both exceptionally hardy; and finally the lettuces 'Cocarde' and 'Green Salad Bowl', to harvest as background flavour baby leaves. These two grow at twice the rate of other lettuces, so they won't get swamped by the more rapidly growing salads.
Bea has also sown four other plants in boxes on their own for winter picking: mustard 'Osaka Purple' (or you could try 'Red Giant', which is very similar); American land cress; beetroot 'Cheltenham'; and pea 'Green Sage'.
As I've already said, the mustard grows too strongly – as does American land cress – so they need to be on their own, but the beetroot and pea have the opposite problem. They are too slow, so would be wiped out if grown in a mix, but all four are delicious and well worth growing separately if you have the space.
You can almost be an arm chair gardener and still grow this mixture of salad leaves.