There's been a lot of publicity about bagged supermarket salads being washed in water containing bleach. Some bagged salads have also been found to contain harmful bacteria capable of causing an upset stomach. On top of all that, bagged salads are (weight for weight) one of the most expensive items on the supermarket shelves and they rise ven higher in winter. Growing your own is easy to do, because winter salads tend to feature oriental salad mixtures and these thrive in cooler temperatures. If you sow seeds in September, you should be able to pick two or three times a week from mid-October right through until March because winter salads grow slowly due to cooler weather and lower light levels. You’ll be eating really fresh leaves, full of vitamins for virtually nothing.
If you want to keep a crop going through the coldest weather, you will need some winter protection in the shape of a cold frame, or unheated greenhouse. If you don’t have either, make a small raised bed in a sheltered part of the garden and cover it with thick horticultural fleece on cold nights. Harrod Horticultural sell a good one.
Browse the Saga Garden Centre for great offers on fruit and vegetables now.
Sowing winter salad seeds
Sow winter salad seeds in September.
Almost fill half-size seed trays with seed sowing compost.
Water your trays with tap water. Use a clean watering can and allow the water to stand for half a day. This allows any chlorine in the tap water to evaporate and the water also warms up.
Sprinkle the seeds on and label. Cover thinly with compost and place on a bright windowsill or on a greenhouse bench.
Prick out into small modular trays and grow on. Don’t go for the cheapest modular trays – the holes are often not punched properly. B & Q sell good ones.
Plant out your home-grown plugs once the roots reach the bottom of the module.
You can use ready grown plugs from Organic Plants (www.organicplants.co.uk) or from seed companies.
Line up your plugs, leaving six to nine inches between plants.
Place several up-turned plants saucers in your plot and check them regularly for slugs. Endives and lettuces are their favourites.
Growing in a greenhouse
If you're growing tomatoes in an unheated greenhouse, you will be able to use the same space for salad crops. Remove your tomatoes by mid-October and tidy up the bed and then pop your winter salads in. A frost-breaking heater will keep your plants frost-free in very cold weather. The Italians grow winter salads and their seeds are tested in the Alps. They offer good value and Italian winter salads have a much milder flavour than the spicy oriental ones. Most winter lettuces form heads: they curl their leaves to keep out the cold, so allow them to heart up before harvesting.
Growing in a cold frame or raised bed
This will also provide shelter and drainage, although in cold weather your leaves may stop growing. They will carry on again once the temperatures rise.
Buying winter salad: seeds or plugs?
You could buy separate packets of seeds, or invest in winter salad mixes. There are spicy oriental ones containing different mustards and milder Mediterranean ones on offer. Always grow some rocket, it’s a particularly useful crop in winter because it doesn't suffer from flea beetle.
What winter salads to grow
Milder European mixtures are getting harder to find, because EU regulations dictate that seeds on the European list cannot be mixed together any more. You can’t mix an endive with a lettuce for instance, although you can group several lettuces together. Oriental leaves aren’t on the EU list, so these mixtures are still available.
Salad ‘Niche Oriental Mixed’ (Thompson & Morgan)
This spicy mixture, for those who like it hot, contains golden streaked and red mustard, komatsuna, mizuna and Rocket ‘Sky Rocket’.
'Colourfully Mild Mix' - Kew Collection (Thompson & Morgan)
A milder mix containing red and broad-leaved mizuna golden-yellow pak choi and komatsuna.
‘Spicy Leaf Mix’ (Kings Seeds)
Kings Seeds always offer tremendous value and quality. This mixture contains rocket, mizuna, mustard ‘Red Giant’ and ‘Southern Giant’.
Lettuce ‘Misticanza Misculglio’ (Kings Seeds)
Italian mixture of different chicories and red radicchio designed be cut as leaves.
Lettuce ‘Misticanza’ (Seeds of Italy)
Mixed, cold-tolerant lettuce seeds in a variety of leaf shapes and colours. Misticanza is Italian for mixture.
Best winter lettuces mix (Sarah Raven)
Four cold-tolerant lettuce varieties than include hearting and loose-leaf varieties.
Lettuce ‘Meraviglia D'Inverno S. Martino’ (Seeds of Italy)
The most cold-tolerant Italian lettuce sold by Seeds Of Italy and named after an Italian valley where winter temperatures can plummet to -50C.
Lettuce ‘Winter Density’
A widely available, semi-Cos lettuce that hearts up in March.
A widely available Japanese leafy vegetable with finely dissected, bright-green leaves. The flavour’s hot, but not as hot as mustard. Use sparingly in a salad, it has a stringy texture.
Komatsuna (Thompson & Morgan)
This leafy brassica, found in Japan and Korea, resembles a baby-leaf spinach in looks and flavour. Pick individual young leaves to eat raw. It’s thickly textured and delicious. Widely available, also known as Japanese mustard spinach.
Rocket ‘Apollo’ (Mr Fothergill’s)
A widely available rocket grown for its mild, but peppery rounded leaves.
Radicchio ‘Rossa di Treviso’ (Seeds of Italy)
This red chicory has dark-red upright leaves heavily veined in white, so it’s very decorative. Pick individual leaves, or allow it to heart up and then harvest.
Endive ‘Bionda a Cuore Pieno’ (Seeds of Italy)
Endives tend to grow more in colder weather, so you’re likely to be picking this after Christmas. The pale leaves have a slightly bitter flavour and lots of crunch. Eat raw, or sweat in a little butter.
Chicory ‘Grumolo Verdi’ (Seeds of Italy)
A bright-green, hearting chicory for late-winter use in salads.
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