Saturday, 19 May 2007


Photo: Hedge garlic

I would like to grow salad leaves all year round. Are there alternatives to the usual lettuce varieties that we grow in the summer months? Thanks T.N. by e-mail


As you say, most greenery we eat is grown in the summer. You can still have plants growing in winter such as cabbage or spinach, but these tend to be annuals and you will agree that they taste better cooked as opposed to eating raw in a salad. There are relatively few well-known winter salad leaves and many of these (such as winter lettuce) require protection in all but mild winters. I would like to look at a few alternative winter salad plants and how they can be grown outdoors without protection to provide tasty salads throughout the winter. The milder the winters are then the greater the variety that we will be able to grow here in Inishowen but the ones that I have chosen should withstand anything that is thrown at them. Unless it says otherwise, all the plants are herbaceous perennials and do not need much work to maintain them once they are established. Many of them are also very ornamental and will not look at all out of place in the flower garden.


There are a few things to remember before we look at the plants though:

In general you need more plants to supply the same quantity of leaves.

You also need to understand the growth habit of the plants you are growing. Some, such as chicory, do most of their growing in the summer and autumn, the leaves are hardy enough to stand up to the rigours of winter and can be harvested as required.

Most plants will make very little further growth until the warmer weather arrives. A few of the plants are evergreen, although they make very little growth in the winter they can be picked with care throughout this season.

A number of other plants, usually from Mediterranean climates, have a dormant period in the summer (the dry season in the Mediterranean) and begin their growth cycle in the autumn. They grow slowly throughout the winter and can be harvested moderately as required.

Finally, a number of plants come into new growth very early in the year and will normally provide good yields towards the end of winter.

Many of the plants in the list can be easily obtained from a garden centre or as seed.

The next thing you need to do is to select the plants. This list will only really scratch the surface of what we can actually eat throughout the winter but I think you will find it caters for most tastes. I have put the plants in alphabetical order and it will run for a couple of weeks because there is a lot of information to take in!


-Alliaria petiolata. Hedge garlic. This native biennial plant can be found wild in many hedgerows so there is probably little need to cultivate it. The leaves, flowers and young seedpods have a flavour that is somewhat like a cross between garlic and mustard - fairly pleasant when added in small quantities to a salad. This is one of the more shade-tolerant plants on the list. If you decide to cultivate it then collect the seeds from wild plants in early summer and sow them straightaway in situ. They will normally maintain themselves by self-sowing.

Allium species. Onions, Chives etc. There are a number of species in this genus that can supply winter leaves. Our native wild garlic, A. ursinum, is a woodland plant. Usually available from late January or February, the leaves and flowers have a delicious mild garlic flavour. An aggressive spreader, it is probably best left in the woodland, it is also more tolerant of wet soils than other plants in this list. The perennial onion, A. cepa 'Perutile' isreliable - its mild onion flavoured leaves are available all year round. There are many other Allium species to choose from - the following should be hardy in most parts of Inishowen. Welsh onions, A. fistulosum often die down in severe winters but will be back again in late February. Chives, A. schoenoprasum, die down in early winter but are back in February. The three-cornered leek, A. triquetrum can be available from October onwards.

Atriplex halimus, the salt bush, is an evergreen shrub growing 1 metre or more tall. Very resistant to maritime exposure, it can be trimmed and grown as a hedge to provide shelter for other plants in the winter garden. The leaves are more silvery than green and have a distinctive salty flavour. It can be picked in moderation throughout the winter. A. canescens is a very similar-looking N. American shrub that has the same uses.


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