Winter might not be everyone’s favorite season, but I have to say – it’s at the top of my list for sure!
I love the snow, I love the break from many of my normal farm chores, and I love the opportunity to relax and reflect upon the last growing season.
However, it’s safe to say that I also start to go a little stir crazy as the cold, dark days drag on.
Because of this, I’ve experimented over the years with growing a winter salad garden. Growing a winter salad garden is a great way to stay active and to continue reaping all the benefits that my land has to offer – even when that land is covered in snow and ice.
Are you ready to try it? Here are some tips to help you start a delicious winter salad garden that you can enjoy right up until the spring thaw.
Starting a Winter Garden
There are all kinds of salad crops that can grow outdoors in the winter. The key is to understand your growing zone and whether your plants will need protection.
I live in zone 4, so timing is everything. Here, I need to get seeds in the ground in early autumn, when the soil is still warm enough to germinate seedlings.
You will also need to choose hardy varieties of salad greens – more on this below – and consider the location.
Grow your salad garden in a place that is sheltered and sunny. The sheltering aspect is key, as you need to guard your plants against icy winter winds. The soil should be well-draining, too, as plants (no matter how cold-hardy) can freeze if they are left standing in puddles of icy water.
While some gardeners may be able to get by with growing a winter salad garden without any kind of supplemental protection, that is unfortunately not an option where I live. You may have to consider using things like a garden blanket, row cover, cold frame, hoop house, or greenhouse to keep your greens nice and toasty.
The plus side? Many of these options (like a garden blanket) can be removed when the weather warms up. That way you don’t have to worry about accidentally cooking your plants.
You can start seedlings indoors and plant the starters out in your garden when they’re a few inches tall, but for fast-maturing salad greens, I find it much easier just to direct sow.
Sow seeds every week or so from August until mid-autumn for a continuous supply of greens. You can do this in a container, if you want to be able to move the pots indoors, or directly in your beds.
Again, if you plan on growing the greens in a bed or directly in the ground, have a cloche for garden cover on hand to help keep temperatures warm and protect your plants from snow.
Most salad green seeds should be planted at a rate of about 10 seeds for every foot. Space the individual rows 12-18-inches apart. The seeds of most types of leafy greens need to be sown thinly and not too deep. Use the size of the seed and the planting instructions on your seed packet as a guide to the ideal depth.
After planting, water thoroughly. A mistake that many gardeners make is assuming that, since the weather is cooler, they don’t need to water at all. Moist soil can help to protect plant roots from the damaging effects of frost, so give your plants a good drink!
Choose the Right Greens
Not all greens are equally well-suited to being grown in cool weather, though most will do just fine. Here are some of your best options.
A classic salad green, arugula is easy to grow in the winter. It’s hardy to 28°F. The seeds will germinate in temperatures as low as 40°. You can protect them in a cold frame later on.
Another classic winter salad green is spinach. It can tolerate temperatures to 20° and in many climates, can be grown year-round.
Mizuna, also known as purple mizuna, is a popular green but you might not realize at first how popular it truly is.
However, if you’ve ever purchased bagged mixed salad greens at the store, you’ll recognize these purple leaves. They’re serrated and change in color, becoming more intense, as they get closer to harvesting.
The mild leaves are delicious when cooked and eaten fresh. Plus, the homegrown leaves taste so much better than the ones you can buy at the store.
4. Salad Burnet
This unusual-looking salad green looks a bit like parsley at first glance. Eat these up fresh – they taste a bit like cucumbers. These leaves offer a refreshing upgrade to any salad and you can grow the plant as a cut-and-come-again variety.
5. Winter Purslane
Winter purslane is considered by many people to be a weed, but it’s a delicious succulent plant whose leaves taste a lot like spinach.
This tough, cold-resistant green can be grown right out in the open with very little protection. The leaves can be harvested from October until spring.
Of course, kale is also hardy. It can survive even when temperatures fall below zero! In some places, it will survive all winter long. It’s also one of the most nutrient-dense leafy greens, so it’s worth adding to your winter salad garden.
A common misconception about growing watercress is that you need a lot of flowing water to do it. While this plant likes to be moist, it doesn’t have to be grown on the banks of a river.
Just make sure the soil stays damp – which shouldn’t be a challenge in the winter – and enjoy this plant’s pepper leaves all winter long.
8. Lamb’s Lettuce
Another “edible weed,” this plant is also known as mache or corn salad. It is popular for its nutty, mild-tasting leaves that are delicious when eaten raw. Like spinach, though, this is a green that also tastes wonderful cooked up.
Caring for Your Plants
There’s not much you need to do to care for your winter salad garden – at least, not much more than what you’re used to doing when caring for salad greens at other times during the year.
When the weather is still mild and damp in the fall, keep an eye out for slugs and weeds. Both of these are the mortal enemy of winter salad greens! You can use slug traps to keep the former at bay, and the latter can often be controlled by using the protective row covers we mentioned before.
Once temperatures begin to drop, the weeds and pests should be of lesser concern.
Keep the soil warm enough so the roots don’t freeze. Again, the hoop houses, cold frames, blankets, and greenhouses mentioned earlier can help.
However, mulching is something else you can do to suppress weeds, moderate moisture, and of course, keep the soil warm. Use a 2-3-inch thick layer of organic mulch to accomplish this.
Water well, especially until seedlings emerge. Remember, water helps keep plants healthy even in the winter. You shouldn’t need to fertilize, but if your plants look pale and aren’t growing as vigorously as you think they should, applying organic fertilizer can help.
Will Plants Stop Growing When the Ground Freezes?
When you’re ready to harvest, all you need to do is clip the stems with a sharp knife. Clip only the top leaves and those on the outside. Those growing on the inside can be left untouched and allowed to keep growing.
If the ground freezes hard and you don’t have great protection (like a greenhouse), you might find that your winter salad garden stops growing. The plants might not die, but production might drop off. That’s okay. Just leave them be and the growth should resume with a thaw.
Also, by mid-spring, you might find that your plants start to flower. You can eat some of the young flower stalks, but over time, they’ll get tough.
When this happens, it’s your cue to pull up these winter salad crops – and to get started with all of your spring gardening chores. Hopefully, you’ve been able to keep your garden production up strong during those long winter months!