Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Lower South
December, 2008
Regional Report

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A garden of fresh, cool-season salad greens can provide the tastiest salads you've ever had.

Really Cool Salads

My favorite groups of cool-season crops are the cool-season salad greens. A long while back I fell in love with this diverse group of veggies and here's why. Prior to my "discovery" of these leafy crops my salads consisted of taste-challenged chunks of iceberg lettuce with some cucumber or tomato slices tossed in and perhaps a broccoli sprig or two; you know, the stuff offered at many restaurant salad bars. I had to toss in bacon bits, grated cheese, garlic dusted croutons, and black olives and then slather the mix with some tangy dressing to provide some flavor. In the process I ended up with a not-so-healthy salad.

I began planting any kinds of new greens I could find in my garden. This is the stuff from upscale food markets and restaurants! Radicchio, arugula, cress, mache, sorrel, plantain, and a wide variety of new leafy and romaine lettuces were all tested and tasted.

Let me tell you that my salads have never been the same and winter has become a much more productive gardening season for me. When you build a salad from a mix of these tasty greens much of the seasoning is built right in. Hot, lemony, nutty, and a host of other unique flavors are all available in the mix of cool-season greens.

So what are some of the best greens to try in your fall and winter garden? Here are a few that I think you should give a try this season to spice up your cool-season salads.

We should start with lettuce, the foundation on most salads. I like to use the leaf-type lettuces, choosing a mixture of types from green to burgundy to speckled to provide visual variety to a salad. Bibb types and romaine types are also well worth growing. You can extend your lettuce harvest by either planting a small section at a time every two weeks, or by harvesting individual leaves from the plants and leaving the plants for additional harvests over the coming weeks.

Spinach provides nutrition in a tasty package. Spinach salads are great on their own but spinach also works well mixed with other greens. This cold-hardy vegetable deserves a place in the cool-season garden. Provide good drainage especially if your soil is a heavy clay.

Kale is perhaps the most cold hardy of our garden veggies. For some reason many years ago collards made it as the favorite of the south and kale was more embraced by northern gardeners. I think we need to rethink this. Kale is not only cold hardy but also about the most nutritious thing we can grow in the winter garden. It is great cooked lightly or picked very young and used fresh in a salad. It kicks a salad into high gear when it comes to nutrition and health promoting compounds. 'Red Russian' and 'Lacinato' (or dinosaur) kale are two good choices.

Radicchio or Italian chicory forms a gnarly white and burgundy head and provides a somewhat bitter, spicy zip to salads. You would not want to use it alone but it blends well with a number of other salad ingredients.

Corn salad or mache is easy to grow and forms a rosette of soft leaves with a buttery texture. The flavor is mild and rather nutty.

Arugula or roquette grows quickly and provides a tangy, nutty addition to salads. It is best harvested young when the leaves are tender and the flavor is mild. Harvest it too late and the flavor can get too hot and skunky!

Sorrel brings a tangy, lemony flavor to salads. It is easy to grow and produces well in the cool season. Like most of the highly flavored greens it is best used sparingly, like "seasoning," in salads, soups, or other dishes.

Cress comes in several forms including broadleaf and curly cress. The broadleaf types tend to be a bit less pungent but note that cress packs a peppery hot punch!

Mustard provides a very strong, sharp, and pungent kick to salads. The variety 'Osaka Purple' is especially colorful and may be used in salads if harvested when the leaves are still quite small.

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