A feast of winter greens awaits gardeners

“The Green Leaves of Summer” was the theme from the 1960 film “The Alamo” and became a pop standard. Its nostalgic lyrics celebrate both the green time of the year and youth, the green time of life. They’re about abundance and green fields. But when it comes to salads, I’ll take the green leaves of winter any day.

The lettuces of summer grow quickly and luxuriantly, then they infuriate. They turn limp and are quick to bolt, hurrying to make seed. The spinach of summer does the same. Endives and chicories turn bitter, and the flea beetles of summer turn arugula into a lacy-leaved, strong-tasting mistake.

You can rely on a succession of lettuce sowings, planted out every week or two, so that you can at least lay a few leaves under sliced tomatoes. But essentially July and August are the feast of the fruiting crops — tomatoes, squash, beans, peppers, corn and finally the glorious melons. Then, as summer wanes, it’s time to get serious about salads again.

A gardener who’s on top of things already has some fall crops coming along in late August — beets and turnips with their greens, and all the stalwart brassicas like cabbage and kale, which delight in cool fall weather. Full-grown, these have hearty, robust foliage, best for cooking. The green leaves of winter are different. They’re dainty, tender and mild, and if you set about it right, you can feast on them continuously through fall, winter and spring.

Perhaps you’ve been growing mixed salad greens, or “mesclun mixes”, all summer, cutting them at 3 or 4 inches tall and letting them re-grow for subsequent harvests. This works even better as the days start to cool, and Johnny’s Selected Seeds has several such mixes to choose from.

It seems odd, but greens are hardier at baby size. Lettuces grown to full heads need more winter protection than tiny ones sown an inch or two apart, but we can go up until Christmas with the wonderful new Salanova lettuces, whose heads fall into small leaves when cut — saving you prep time in the kitchen.

Cut above the growth point, the heads will re-grow for a second harvest. Small arugula leaves in fall and winter are green and lush, with just enough bite. The “wild” type, called Sylvetta, can take even more cold.

Spinach can often be harvested all winter long without extra protection, as can claytonia (also called miner’s lettuce) with its tiny, rounded, succulent leaves. Young beet greens are superbly frost-proof. Try Bull’s Blood, a variety whose foliage turns a deeper maroon the colder it gets, or the pretty red-veined leaves of Red Ace.

All of these can be cut and re-cut for a perpetual harvest. With mache, a European favorite that makes delicious little rosettes, the whole plant is harvested and does not re-grow, but like all of these greens a new planting can be sown wherever there is a gap in the bed, and the lengthening days of late January and February will nurse them into leaf again.

As summer greens go by and you feed their tattered remains to the compost pile, it’s great to have some quick crops like these you can direct-sow in their place. Keep the new plantings well watered if summer temperatures linger.

To be assured of a winter-long harvest, it’s worth planting them in a cold frame. This could be a do-it-yourself model — a bottomless wooden box with storm windows laid on top works fine — or one of the ready-made models sold by garden suppliers. But if your frame is not self-venting be sure to prop up the lid during the day so your greens don’t “cook.”

For the adventurous there is much more variety in the winter salad bowl than in the summer one. Try some Red Russian kale picked at baby size, handsome with its bluish leaves and red ribs. Swiss chard, either a standard variety like Fordhook or one of the colored-rib types, makes a fine, substantial small-leaf salad.

And the procession of Asian greens for winter is nearly endless — tatsoi, baby pac-choi, red mustard, feathery mizuna, and the wonderful Happy Rich, which is picked like broccoli raab but without any of raab’s bitterness. And parsley is a mainstay. The curly type is hardier than the broad-leaved.

A simple home greenhouse, one in which the crops grow right in the ground, not in benches, will give you all the winter greens you can possibly eat. Even a plastic A-frame tent, rigged to fit over a bed of greens in your garden will keep it eternally young.

If the crops freeze on a cold night, no problem! They’ll thaw in time for a bounteous lunch salad, filled with vibrant colors, crisp textures and lively flavors. To quote another old standard, “It might as well be spring.”

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Gardener’s Cookbook.”
Barbara Damrosch

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