Late summer is a great time to plant salad greens for fall and winter meals.
We have the cool temperatures, occasional downpours and late season sun that greens favor. If you can protect the plants from late fall and winter rain with a cloche or row cover, you can extend your harvest into winter.
Salad greens are cool season crops that like rich, well-drained soil and a site that receives lots of sun. As opposed to a lettuce that might become bitter with age, savory salad greens are best eaten early. They are the perfect "replacement" plant in your vegetable garden - when you pull up that potato or spent tomato plant, sprinkle some seeds for spinach or endive, a member of the lettuce family. If you're lucky enough to find plant starts, such as a six-pack of the Swiss chard 'Bright Lights,' pop those plants into the ground for its crunchy stalks and green, spinach-like leaves. The stems of rose, yellow, red, gold and white are a bonus - some eye candy that makes a nice addition to a late-season bouquet.
If you prefer to start your plants from seed, salad greens should be put in over the next few weeks. The plants grow best when the temperature is between 60 and 70 degrees, and most take between 40 and 60 days to mature. The seeds should be planted 1/4-1/2 inch deep and about an inch or two apart. After germination, you can thin to about six inches between plants and get fewer, stronger plants. This approach works well for varieties such as arugula, which grows about a foot tall. For the smaller greens, such as corn salad, take out every third plant or so and get a thick row of smaller plants. Since salad greens are best harvested little and young, this approach works well, as long as you pay attention to weeds and the potential for mold. If the little greens seem unable to thrive planted so closely, thin some out.
Greens such as corn salad, chicory and purslane are best harvested when young. Designate a pair of scissors as the garden snips and cut the young leaves when they are about two inches tall. If you leave another inch above the soil line, the leaves may regrow for a second harvest. Cut at ground level, and you'll get a single harvest.
Once the fall rain sets in, protect your leafy greens with a cold frame or row cover. The greens can rot, due to rain and our generally moist winter climate. I use a Garden Clip greenhouse developed locally. The clip fasteners secure a greenhouse film, shade cloth or row covers over bent poly pipes to create a small hoop house. Territorial Seed Company carries the clips.
Here are some of the many garden greens that can planted from starts now, or grown from seed:
Arugula, or roquette, is a hardy member of the mustard family, and it comes to maturity in just a month. Its flavor can be described as nutty or toasty. It resembles dandelion greens in appearance and is rich in beta carotene and Vitamin C. I like it sauteed in virgin olive oil and lightly salted.
Endive belongs to the lettuce family and has smooth, pale elongated heads. It's very flavorful. Curly endive, sometimes called chicory, has curly-edged green leaves. Escarole, also a chicory relative, has broad, wavy green leaves and tastes slightly bitter. Endive is very cold hardy.
Radicchio grows in small heads and adds red color and zest to salads. This is a bitter green, but it takes nicely to a sweet salad dressing and you can't beat its red color in a bowl of greens.
Corn salad, my favorite salad green, is in heavy rotation on our dinner table this time of year. The teeny leaves are mild, yet rich. This one yields nicely to my kitchen snips and I tend to fawn over the little patch in our vegetable garden.
Garden purslane is another high vitamin salad green. Wild purslane serves the same purpose, although the garden varieties have been developed for size and an upright growing habit. Good on sandwiches, too!
Fall spinach needs rich, well-drained soil to thrive. 'Olympia' is a good candidate for year-round growing and is slower to bolt in warm weather. It grows to 10 inches and is resistant to most downy mildew. If your soil is poor or too dry for spinach, Swiss chard can thrive there. It takes about 60 days to reach maturity and can be eaten before reaching its full 24-inch height. 'Golden Chard' is a new introduction, and the specialty heirloom strain matures to rich, gold stalks with emerald green leaves.
Cathy Peterson belongs to the Clatsop County Master Gardener Association. "In the Garden" runs weekly in Coast Weekend. Please send comments and gardening news to "In the Garden," The Daily Astorian, P.O. Box 210, Astoria, OR 97103 or online to firstname.lastname@example.org