Lee Valley & Veritas

 Gardening Newsletter
  Volume 8, Issue 11 - November 2013    
A Christmas Salad
Row cover December greens
The author's row cover greens from last December ready to be enjoyed in a delicious salad.
With the first frost of autumn, many vegetable gardeners hang up their gloves and wait for spring. Yet with a little planning, the homegrown harvest can easily stretch into the Christmas holidays and beyond. The key is to combine the right crops with the right season extenders.

Smart crop selection begins with cold-season greens that form the foundation of a quality salad. Best bets include spinach, kale, arugula, Swiss chard, mâche and Asian greens such as pak choi, mizuna and mustard. You can also include other salad fixings: scallions, beets, carrots and radishes, as well as aromatic herbs (thyme, chervil and parsley), which add welcome flavor to homemade vinaigrettes and dressings.

Frosted mizuna greens
Frosted mizuna greens are fine to eat as long as you allow them to thaw naturally before harvesting.
Winter Salad Superstars

Tatsoi: One of the hardiest salad greens, tatsoi is often sold at farmer's markets as "the new spinach". It forms pretty rosettes of crunchy, spoon-shaped leaves that, like spinach, can be enjoyed raw or cooked. It is also very quick to grow — a baby crop can be ready just weeks after seeding.

Arugula: Often called 'rocket' because of its speedy growth tendency, gourmet arugula is pricey at the supermarket but quick and easy to grow in an autumn garden. It's also extremely cold hardy. Seed it in early September for a non-stop supply of peppery leaves that will persist into winter.

  Dinosaur kale
  Dinosaur kale sparkling with frost.
Kale: Kale is among the most cold tolerant of the leafy greens and can be grown for a baby crop or allowed to mature into 2' to 4' tall giants. For salads, baby kale offers the tenderest foliage. Seed it thickly in late summer in cold frames or garden beds that will eventually be covered with a mini hoop tunnel. A top pick for baby kale is 'Red Russian', which has smooth blue-green leaves and purple veins.

Mâche: Also known as corn salad, mâche is a popular winter salad green that forms 2" to 4" wide rosettes. The leaves are tender with a pleasing nutty flavor. The plants are harvested by slicing them whole at soil level. Mâche can be tossed in salads or used as a bed for chicken or fish dishes.

Swiss Chard: Perhaps the hardest working salad green, a clump of Swiss chard can provide a non-stop harvest from spring through late autumn and even longer with protection. Look for varieties such as 'Bright Lights', 'Peppermint' or 'Magenta Sunset', which offer deep-green foliage paired with vividly colored leaf stalks.

The Season Extenders

Row Cover: There are a variety of season extenders that can be used to shelter fall and winter crops. The most basic level of protection is a row cover, a length of gauzy fabric that protects from frost and extends the harvest period by about a month. It can be draped directly on top of vegetables or 'floated' over the bed on hoops.

  Mini hoop tunnels
  Mini hoop tunnels in winter
Mini Hoop Tunnel: This provides more insulating protection and is both easy and inexpensive to build. It is essentially a mini greenhouse, measuring about 3' tall and as long as the garden bed allows. It can be quickly built from 10' lengths of 1/2" diameter PVC electrical conduit to form the hoops. They should be bent into an upside down U-shape on top of garden beds. One-foot lengths of rebar can be pounded into the ground and used as stakes to secure the ends of the hoops. Space them at 3' intervals and attach a center support to the middle of the structure if you plan on harvesting into winter. This will help disperse snow and prevent the tunnel from collapsing after a storm.

The mini hoop tunnel should be covered with a sheet of 10' wide clear plastic when frost is expected. On mild autumn days, the ends can be lifted to allow air circulation but should be closed up at night if temperatures fall below 4°C. When winter threatens in late November, the tunnels should be kept closed except when harvesting. Use sandbags, rocks, logs or clips to keep the plastic secured to the hoops.

Cold frames
Fresh greens ready to be harvested from the cold frame in the middle of winter
Cold Frame: This is a bottomless box with a clear top that allows light to enter. The back of the box is usually taller than the front so that the sash (the top) sits at an angle allowing maximum light to enter. A cold frame can be a permanent or temporary structure and it can be built in a variety of sizes. For backyard purposes, a 3'x6' cold frame is ideal. It offers ample space for crops but isn't so large that it's difficult to lift the sash.

A permanent cold frame is most often constructed of wood with a glass or polycarbonate top. Untreated hemlock or cedar are ideal materials for the box as they are durable and not prone to rot. A temporary cold frame can be made from straw bales arranged in a square or rectangle and topped with an old window or door. Permanent wooden cold frames have a low profile, usually offering about a foot of growing space, but straw-bale cold frames offer the benefit of height. This allows taller crops such as mature kale, leeks or cabbage to be enjoyed well into winter.

With a bit of planning and a few simple techniques, you should be able to harvest your own greens for next year's Christmas dinner salad and even continue harvesting well beyond the holiday season.

Niki Jabbour

Niki Jabbour is the author of the upcoming book Groundbreaking Food Gardens (March 2014) and the award winning The Year Round Vegetable Gardener (2012 American Horticultural Society Book Award). She also hosts the radio show The Weekend Gardener on News 95.7 FM, which airs April through October. Niki's work is widely published in newspapers and magazines such as Fine Gardening, Gardens East, Garden Making and The Heirloom Gardener. Find her online at www.nikijabbour.com as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

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