Where is the frigid grip of winter? In the Northeast we are in the disconcertingly mild cuddle of mid-December. Gardeners are beginning to scratch their heads and wonder what is going to happen to their fall-planted bulbs. Will they break dormancy now and be zapped by the first real freeze?
The good news is that the cool-weather salad bar is still wide, wide open.
Fresh-cut greens might not seem synonymous with midwinter but even in ordinary weather cycles, mí¢che, pea shoots, fava bean leaves, and mustard can be on your holiday plate if your USDA hardiness zone is 6b or higher. For a small investment per packet, you cut your salad shopping bill drastically, and have the satisfaction of picking your daily bowlful, grown right at home.
Photography by Marie Viljoen.
Above: I started growing mí¢che (also called corn salad and lamb’s lettuce) because I could not find its delicate and easily bruised rosettes at markets. Mí¢che is a true winter crop. While many sources cite it as easy to grow, there is a trick (which they don’t mention): the seeds will not germinate if temperatures are above 70 degrees Fahrenheit. After overnight temperatures are steadily below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, it is time to plant for midwinter or spring harvest.
A good source for seeds is Botanical Interests, where a packet of Heirloom Mí¢che Seeds is $1.89.
Giant Red Mustard
Above: One of the cold-hardy Brassicas, giant red mustard thrives in nippy weather and adds a welcome bite of pepper to a mixed salad. The largest leaves make good leaf wraps. (And planted alone in a perennial bed, the leaves are indeed giant and are very striking.)
Spicy arugula is a staple in my daily salads. This year – gardening in-ground in Brooklyn after a move from a container garden in Harlem – I have been thrilled to discover that they will thrive without direct sunlight. In fact they perform better than the arugula that I have grown in full sun. Plant as early as late summer, with successive sowings till frost.
Above: Fava greens are the earliest spring crop to plant, so why not make them the last crop of the cooling year? Fava greens keep pushing out shoots as fast as you nip them for salads and stir fries. They can take high shade, making them a versatile crop.
Above: Peas work well in containers and in-ground. If you plant in late fall they will not set pods, but you will be able to appreciate their pretty, sugar snap-flavored shoots.
Above: Sweet kale leaves taste better after a crisp frost, and are tough enough to withstand dustings of snow. Their texture holds up to composed salads and works beautifully with sliced apples and pears. Plant dwarf varieties for containers and small spaces and also for earlier harvest.
For seeds, a packet of Dino Kale seeds is $3.95 from Hudson Seed Library.
Above: I sowed my first fenugreek patch from store-bought spice in late summer. The seeds all germinated quickly. While not a typical cold weather crop, the greens still can be collected while temperatures hover above freezing. The legume is common in India (where it is known as methi) and in the Middle East, but not much used stateside. The fresh leaves are good raw or wilted (and a favorite in parathas). And their roots fix nitrogen in the soil (nice bonus). Look for the seeds in Middle Eastern or Indian grocery stores and soak before sowing.
Above: Here is a plant you may have noticed growing in the wild in cold weather. Winter cress (also called upland cress and creasy greens) is as cold-loving as its name suggests. Planted in early fall, it can be harvested well before the last frost of winter. The leaves are mustard-like in flavor and develop more chewiness with colder temperatures. In a salad their heat offsets the tropical sweetness of winter mangos. Left to bolt, its pretty yellow flowers on tender stems are also delicious.
A good source for seeds is Johnny’s, where a packet of Winter Cress Seeds is $3.95.
Above: The best thing about cold weather salads is that you get to plant them again, starting in early spring. If it it is too hard to decide what to plant, consider signing up early for a seed of the month club, like Grow Journey’s, where a surprise collection will arrive monthly, guaranteed to contain leafy edibles that love the cold.