People Find Winter Salad Growing In The UK Difficult. It Needn’t Be If You Follow The Advice Here & Grow Species That Some People Regard As Edible Winter Weeds.
I’m often asked two questions about Winter Salad Growing. The first is whether Winter Salad Growing is possible and, when I say it is, I’m asked What Winter Salads to Grow in the UK?
And of course once people realise that winter salads are possible they ask a host of other questions. From How To Grow Winter Salads to When to Plant Winter Salads and What Fertiliser Do Winter Salads Need.
I’m writing this post to give as many answers as I can.
I’ve been growing winter salads for years. Lettuce are my favourite, probably because I used to grow them on a huge scale all year around. The links will take you to those articles. But in this article I’m going to explain another approach to winter salad growing. And it’s all about what many people regards as “weeds”. But of course a weed is a plant in the wrong place, and in this case you want the plants so they can’t really be called weeds. But all of these are plants that got wild in this country and will thrive in your garden.
The Problem With Growing Winter Crops
Winters where I live are cold and wet. They are in many parts of the UK and the last thing we should be doing is be walking all over our land in winter, damaging it with our boots and gardening equipment. So how can we grow crops that are reliable, healthy and give good yields?
Simple. We focus on growing the plants that like the winter conditions. Lettuce and many other winter salads do well outdoors in milder areas but do better with a bit of shelter from a greenhouse or tunnel in many parts. But there are plants that thrive outdoors and can brave the elements.
Of course some areas are going to be better for growing than others. If you are on cold clay, in a very wet area, half way up a mountain, the range of plants that can be grown will be fewer than what I can grow in milder East Devon, just a mile from the sea.
Ideal Growing Conditions For Winter Salads
Ideally choose a site that is:-
- Well drained. Few plants like growing in standing water, especially those we want to use as winter salad crops.
- Reasonably well sheltered. Some crops are prostrate and grow close to the grown, they’ll cope with a more exposed site. But many others grow a bit taller and will do better if there’s a bit of shelter. Cold winds slow growth down in most species.
- A sunny spot is best, if you can find one. Though there isn’t much sun in winter, every little bit will help, and many of the crops I recommend will grow all winter.
- A moderately fertile spot. Because many of the crops I recommend are “weeds” or edible wild plant crops they have developed to cope with average conditions. If the soil is too rich, especially with lots of nitrogen, they will grow “soft” and succumb to the cold and wet much quicker. What we are looking of is slow steady growth that is resilient to the conditions. We don’t want growth that is rapid and tender. So there is rarely a need to add fertiliser where these crops grow.
Shelter Tip For Winter Salads
If you site is exposed to winter winds there’s a simple trick to create shelter. Grow some tall brassicas on the exposed side. They will filter the wind and create better conditions.
My favourite brassica for this is Perennial Kale. It stands no end of rough weather and the more you harvest it the more it seems to grow. There’s more on kale growing via this link.
My Recommended Winter Weed Salads
Lamb’s Lettuce, Valerianella locusta, aka cornsalad, mache, mâche or common lamb’s sala
Lamb’s salad is a European native that has spread beyond its native habitat. In my area it is an arable weed that is found in winter corn stubble where it can be quite prolific. It starts quite prostrate but can then grow a foot (30cm) high and is tasty.
In the garden it can be grown in containers, under glass or plastic, or outdoors and is available from many seed companies. It can be sown any time of year and grows well. Harvest it as you need and let it keep regrowing throughout the year.
Bring an annual it will eventually go to seed but I just keep cutting it to stop the flowers actually producing seed. It then remains very “herbaceous”.
Sow new plants every year at a time to suit you. In cornfields it follows the pattern of growth related to the crop it is growing in and grows once the crop is harvested. Left all winter it is one of the many plants that overwintering seed eating birds love.
Hairy bittercress, Cardamine hirsuta
You probably don’t need to buy seed of this plant. It is endemic and I rarely see a garden without it. It is also in many pot plants in garden centres.
The plant is a herbaceous species, that grows rapidly and soon sets seed. The seed then project themselves from the seed pod and travel a few feet before infesting another area. The best control method I know is to eat the plant!
One of the attractions of hairy bittercress is that it likes damper spots so if your site is damper it will do quite well. It normally grows as an annual or biennial depending on when it starts its lifecycle.
For lovers of Latin, hirsute means hairy, but it isn’t named accordingly because it’s neither hairy or bitter.
Chicory, Cichorium intybus
Chicory is a perennial, often grown for farm livestock, but for human consumption is best sown in each spring. It is reputed to be anti parasitic in cattle. The flavour is bitter so it’s very much the marmite of the salad world. The young leaves make a good addition to salads but don’t forget the roots are also edible and can be roasted, ground and used as a coffee substitute. A true ersatz coffee.
The buds, called chicons, can be forced and eaten in salads.
Fennel, Foeniculum vulgare
Fennel has a beautiful aniseed flavour and is a welcome addition to salads at any time of year.
In my own garden the bronze fennel is definitely a weed and springs up all over the place. But it’s an imposter in some senses as though its leaves are feather like, the colour is as its name suggests, bronze rather than green.
Florence fennel or finocchio is the same species but is a cultivar with a swollen bulb-like stem that is good braised or sliced into salads.
Fennel is one of the plants used to flavour absinthe.
Latin lovers will know that the use of vulgare in its name means common.
Various Allium species
Chives start sprouting here in Devon before Christmas. I have some today, December 3rd, that are already of a size that I could harvest. In colder areas they will be much later but are still capable of being harvested in the depth of winter in some sheltered spots.
Wild garlic, A. ursinum, is reliably early in some areas and is a fairly strongly flavoured leaf crop in sheltered spots in late winter.
Welsh onions, A. fistulosum thrive in many winter scale gardens, as does the later three-cornered leek, A. triquetrum, which I often see in late winter.
Alexanders, Smyrnium olusatrum
This used to be a plant that started to grow herein late winter or early spring. But yesterday I looked at several plants in local hedgerow that were over a foot high and looking fresh, vibrant and very green. Global warming is very apparent in many winter salad crops. I predict we will see more and more crops, that wouldn’t previously have thrived in winter, performing well in to the future. There’s more on Alexanders here.
Hedge garlic, Alliaria petiolata
Hedge garlic is a peppery addition to the salad bowl. It’s a reliable harvest in late winter in my part of the world.
Salad burnet, Sanguisorba minor
My wildflower meadow is full of salad burnet. Its name is a giveaway as it is an edible that has been eaten for centuries, though I rarely see people eat it now.
Pink purslane, Montia sibirica / Claytonia sibirica
A pretty pink flower that botanists have moved around the families a bit! It grows wild in the lanes near me. Another winter herb for my plate. and if you wonder if it is hardy its Latin name is a clue, it hails from Siberia and Alaska. It can be reliably harvested for under deep snow in those countries.
Another claytonia, this one tastes a bit like beetroot.
Rocket, Barbarea vulgaris.
Our native yellow rocket is a short-lived perennial with a strong hot watercress flavour. It grows to about a foot (30cm) tall.
Are you spotting the trend here .. with so many winter salads having strong flavours. I wonder if it is to discourage livestock grazing?
Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale
This plant needs no introduction as its bright yellow flowers are well known. Dandelion is not only edible but is also a vital early flowering plant for bees. Every garden should have loads of them in my view. I have.
This is just a sample of the winter salads that are possible in the UK. I’ll be adding more in the near future.
All the above plants lend themselves to growing in, or adjacent to, food forests.
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