Cool Season Salad Greens

Eat salad from your garden year round with these expert tips.

| Fall 2013

  • Eat salad from your garden year round with these expert tips.
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  • Lettuce, Midnight Ruffles
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  • Arugula, Pronto
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  • Kale, Red Russian
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  • Mizuna, Red Streaks and Lime Streaks
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  • Lettuce, assorted
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  • Bok Choy, Ching Chang
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  • Greens, Oriental Mizuna Red Streaks
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  • Swiss Chard, Vulcan
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  • Spinach, Bloomsdale
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  • Spinach, Amsterdam Prickly Seeded
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  • Lettuce, Devil's Tongue
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  • Lettuce, Leopard
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  • Cool Season Salad
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It was my love of homegrown salad greens that introduced me to the idea of fall and winter gardening. Like many northern gardeners, I had always assumed that the arrival of the fall frosts signaled a decisive end to the harvest season, but a little patch of arugula proved me wrong. One sunny October day, I walked up to our backyard vegetable garden to plant some garlic and discovered that my late summer arugula was still going strong. I immediately picked a big bowl and covered the bed with a row cover, a piece of fabric that I often used to protect spring-planted tomatoes. Yet, with that simple level of protection, we enjoyed arugula for an additional six weeks and I began to wonder what other vegetables could be grown so late in the year.

The ability to harvest throughout fall and winter has transformed our garden into a year-round food factory, but besides a non-stop supply of homegrown organic food, there are other hidden benefits. For example, because our cold-season leafy greens are tucked beneath the shelter of a cold frame or mini hoop tunnel, winter is the only time of the year that I don’t fight our out-of-control deer population — they’re left with nothing to nibble! As well, the winter garden is extremely low maintenance with little to do from November through March, besides harvesting. There’s no need to water or weed the winter crops and no slugs, cabbage worms, flea beetles or other common garden pests to foil my harvest.

I’m often asked, “How do you grow vegetables in late fall and winter — Isn’t it too cold?” Sure, it’s cold, sometimes very cold, but the defining factor of success isn’t cold, but rather day length and once the day length slips below the 10 hour mark (early November in my region) most plant growth comes to a standstill. Therefore I’m not really “growing” food after November, but rather just sheltering the cold-tolerant crops which patiently wait in their protective structures until I’m ready to harvest.

The planning of a fall and winter garden begins in early summer when leftover seed packets are sorted and last-minute orders to seed catalogs are placed. At this time, the seed of slower-growing leafy crops like kale, collards and cabbage can be started indoors under grow lights for a mid-summer transplanting to the garden. Quick-growing salad greens are direct seeded from mid-August through mid-September, but if daytime temperatures are still soaring in late summer, I start several flats of lettuce, endive, escarole, Swiss chard, pak choi and mizuna under our grow lights indoors. Many of these cool-weather crops won’t germinate outside if temperatures are too hot, so starting seeds indoors for later transplanting to the garden ensures a good harvest.  

Season Extending Techniques

The key to a successful cold-season harvest is to select the right crops and pair them with the appropriate season extender. In our 2,000-square-foot garden, I rely on row covers, cold frames and mini hoop tunnels.

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