In the garden, it’s August: the pumpkins are swelling, the beans are coming thick and fast, and I’m feasting on courgettes, tomatoes and cucumbers.
But in my head, it’s October, or maybe November, and I’m thinking about my winter salad supply.
As the lovely students on my course, Self-Sufficient Veg Gardening will tell you, I’m big on planning. Stay one step ahead of the season and you’ll give yourself the best chance of a veg plot that’s pumping out the produce month after month, all year round.
So right now, though the summer harvest is in full swing, I’m pulling out the seed trays and taking to the potting bench again to get my winter greens under way. At this time of year seeds germinate quickly, and there’s time for them to grow to picking size by November, when the cold weather hits.
I start them in pots and seed trays simply because the greenhouse is still stuffed to the gunwales with tomato plants and cucumber plants: I can hardly get in there, never mind new seedlings! So sowing direct into the borders is out of the question, and I can’t afford to wait till the tomato plants are spent and ready to evict in October as that’ll be far too late to sow for winter eating.
Sow in pots now, though, and by September you’ll have seedlings ready to prick out and pot on. The seed trays can go into a cold frame to germinate, or just up on a shelf or table outside in the open: raising them up off ground level helps keep them safe from slugs and mice, too.
Once you’ve evicted the jungle of tomato plants from the greenhouse they’ll be sturdy young plants, ready to plant into the greenhouse borders, and by November I’ll be picking the first succulent leaves.
If you don’t have a greenhouse, plant into the garden under a long row barn cloche instead. I like the glass ones as they stay in place much easier, unlike polythene which tends to rip and blow away. Sow direct, then cover with cloches from next month; or sow into pots as above, and plant out into the garden as young plants to cover with cloches through winter.
Major on winter salad varieties, as they’re much better equipped to deal with the cold and damp of a long winter; and be generous. All vegetables will grow during milder spells, but slowly – so you won’t get the same quantities you might expect in summer. Provide a sparkling selection of winter goodies from lettuces and annual herbs to spicy oriental flavours: here are my top ten favourites for sowing right now.
Winter lettuces ‘Black Seeded Simpson’, with rumpled, tasty leaves, ‘Marvel of the Four Seasons’ for fat bronze-tinted butterheads and classic ‘Winter Density’ are all great choices.
Mizuna Jagged-leaved mizuna is ridiculously easy to grow – even the slugs don’t like it much so you can sow it direct. As well as plain green, there are lovely red-tinted varieties to try, too.
Mustard Go easy on the oriental mustard leaves: they can be blindingly peppery. I like ‘Red Frills’ which has lacy leaves and a milder flavour.
Corn salad Also known as mâché, corn salad grows best at the cooler end of the year – so never sow it before August. It produces ruffs of crisp, juicy leaves with a sweet, light flavour.
Claytonia Another crisp, juicy salad green with succulent leaves on scrambling stems that romp about the salad patch; the flavour is sweet, like mangetout peas.
American land cress Super easy to grow and a great substitute for watercress, with all the peppery flavour but without the requirement for a fast-flowing chalk stream to grow it in!
Coriander Surprisingly hardy for a south Asian herb, coriander grows better through the cool and damp of autumn; it also tolerates a couple of degrees of frost so you can still be picking it in January.
Rocket Like coriander, a herb that stays leafier for longer if you grow it through autumn into winter; snip the leaves young, when no more than 8cm long, or they get too tough and peppery.
Swiss chard Stick to the white-stemmed varieties like ‘Swiss’ or ‘Fordhook Giant’ as they’re more resilient in frosty weather. Sow direct or in pots now for lush spinach-like leaves throughout winter.
Hardy spring onions Other salad ingredients like mooli radishes and spring onions bred for winter growing, like ‘Guardsman’, give you the extra variety that takes winter salads from good to gourmet.
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