Gardening: Sub-zero salads

There are plenty of salads that will grow happily outdoors in winter and provide you with a fresh crop of leaves from November through to March. Sarah Raven advises on varieties that can withstand the frosts, and how to sow them
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The Independent Culture
LAST YEAR, all the way through winter, I was picking salad leaves from the garden. I grew some delicious hot, peppery leaves including mizuna, rocket, Tatsoi and cress, mixed with the more gentle taste of corn salad and loose-leaf lettuce. Amazingly, they were all happy growing outside. I do live in the south of England, and last winter was mild, but even in places with harder frosts and snow it's possible to grow up to 15 different varieties of salad leaves straight into the soil as long as you can protect them with cloches.

It's well worth it. Instead of tasteless Spanish iceberg lettuces, you can eat salad every day in November, March and April, reducing to twice a week in December, January and February, when the low level of light slows growth rates down. To make a salad plant good for winter-picking, it needs to be hardy enough to withstand being frozen solid. Cut and come again varieties are the ones to choose. Roots established in the early autumn will produce at least four crops of new leaves in the months that follow.

My favourite is mizuna. It has spiky, up-right leaves that look rather like dandelion leaves, and a mild, mustardy flavour. It's easy to grow and one of the hardiest of the winter salads. Tatsoi, when picked young (when the leaves are about twice the size of a 10p piece), has a similar taste to mizuna and a good crisp texture, too. Both of these are also good cooked. You can chop them up and use them just wilted in a stir-fry, or steam them.

Salad rocket is good for the winter. It has a milder flavour than wild rocket, which stops growing in the colder months. So is Cressida, a pretty, elegant cress with highly-divided leaves. It isn't as overpowering as American (or land) cress.

Annie Joy of Kingsgate Farm, Witter-sham, Kent, supplies restaurants such as Orso and the Dorchester with salads. She recommends black cabbage, Russian kale, Red Giant mustard, Green mustard and Ruby chard. They are all hardy and reliable producers. Black cabbage has rounded, greyish leaves with a mild, cabbagey flavour. Russian kale tastes more like mizuna while Red Giant mustard and Green mustard are peppery. Ruby chard has a distinctive earthy taste. Kingsgate has Rainbow chard - with its red, orange and yellow leaves - on trial for this winter too. Remember to pick the leaves when they're small.

Some subtle-tasting leaves should be added to these stronger-tasting varieties to make the perfect salad. Lamb's lettuce (also known as corn salad and mache), with its odd, slightly soapy taste, is ideal. The loose- leaf lettuces like Red and Green Oak Leaf, the frilly green Lollo Biondi and crimson Lollo Rosso, and the shiny, waxy-leaved deep red Bijou also grow well with some protection. The red varieties colour up best when grown outside with at least 10 degrees difference between day and night- time temperatures.

It's a good idea to have your plants in the ground by early September so they have grown enough to give you one crop before the winter months. If you leave it much later, you'll be able to pick from February onwards, but you'll miss the early crop. Most will be ready to harvest in about six weeks. The lettuces will be ready for their first cut even sooner.

Choose the most sheltered spot and cultivate the soil to a fine tilth. For the salad leaves, sow directly into inch-deep seed drills spread 4in apart. Water the drill before you sow so that the soil temperature is cool. These plants will not germinate well in heat. Sow as thinly as you can. And that's all. You don't need to thin the plants.

For the lettuces, sow into Jiffy 7s - compacted peat blocks. When you water them, they expand into little peat cubes, with a dimple in the middle into which you sow one seed. The lettuces germinate in a few days. After a couple of weeks, dig the cubes into the soil about 9in apart. This is a very efficient system, although you may prefer not to use these on environmental grounds as extracting the peat is damaging.

Cover the lines of lettuces with cloches when the frosts begin. Remove these every so often to water and pick. If you garden in an exposed or chilly spot, insulate your cloches with a layer of bubble-wrap, added to the layer of plastic over the metal hoops. If you have a greenhouse, grow everything in there. Sow directly into the ground, or cover your benches with grow bags, sowing a couple of different crops in each. If you have electricity in the greenhouse, extend the hours of daylight to 12 or 14 hours per day with a cheap fluorescent strip-light. This will encourage growth in the darkest months of the year. Give the plants a boost in March with a liquid seaweed or Liquinure feed. As long as you harvest the leaves from above the first pair of seed leaves, the plants will be covered in a fresh crop again within a fortnight.

You can buy mail-order seeds from Suffolk Herbs, Coggeshall Road, Kelvedon, Essex (01376 572456) and Chase Organics, Riverdene Business Park, Molesey Road, Hersham, Surrey (01932 253666). If you don't want to grow your own, you can buy boxes of salad leaves from Kingsgate Farm, Kingsgate Lane, Wittersham, Kent (01797 270626).

* At fashionable restaurants like Orso, pea-tips, the top inch or two or sprouting peas are the thing to eat at the moment. They have a sweet pea-like flavour, with a crunchy texture perfect for mixing with salad leaves. If you*ve got some peas coming up in the garden, try some. * Making your own tunnel cloches for your winter salads is easy to do with Geoff Hamilton*s brilliant organic gardening book in your hand. Assemble wood strips, wire and polythene and make as many cloches as you need for almost nothing. The Organic Garden Book. Geoff Hamilton Published by Dorling Kindersley ISBN 0751305006 Price pounds 14.99 *

The strawberry plants in my garden are surrounded by a spaghetti of runners with daughter plants rooting themselves in the ground around. Choose ones with decent roots. Cut these off from the parent plant and pot them up. They can be planted out later in the autumn or next spring. The heaviest croppers will be two and three year old plants. After that they need replacing with the younger generation.

1 Making your own tunnel cloches is easy and cheap to do with the help of Geoff Hamilton's brilliant organic gardening book. Assemble wood strips, wire and polythene and make as many cloches as you need. The Organic Garden Book (Dorling Kindersley, pounds 14.99)

1 Pea tips - the top couple of inches of sprouting peas - are now being served at fashionable restaurants such as the Park Lane Hilton. They are sweet and crunchy - perfect for mixing with salad leaves. If you've got peas, try some

1 If your strawberry plants are surrounded by a spaghetti of runners, with daughter plants rooting themselves in the ground, choose ones with decent roots, cut them off and pot them up. They can be planted out later in the autumn or next spring. The heaviest croppers will be two- and three- year-old plants. They will then need replacing with the younger generation

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