The Early Salad: Five Underrated Greens You Can Eat in Winter and Early Spring
A special satisfaction comes from drawing delicate salad greens from winter’s icy grip.Posted Jan 5, 2016
When American painter Andrew Wyeth said that in winter, “something waits beneath [the landscape], the whole story doesn’t show,” he may well have been observing the winter garden. Devoid of summer’s bounty and stripped to its bones by chilling winds, the winter garden is less showy than its bloom-laden, vegetable-heaving counterpart – but no less important.
Beneath the surface, frost, moisture, and weathering action is busily softening up seeds, eroding their hard shells and triggering their eventual entry into the great cycle of life come springtime. Above the soil, hardy crops like kale, collards, and cabbages are sweetening with the drop in temperature, forming the basis for winter salads when the more tender lettuces have succumbed to the changing season.
But what about those underrated in-betweens, the hardy to moderately hardy greens that too often get short-shrift when cooks conjure up winter salads? Don’t they have something to offer? High in vitamins, nutrients, and flavor, these five greens will bring variety and zest to any winter salad.
Swiss Chard (Beta Vulgaris)
Don’t be put off by its Latin name—this plant is a colorful addition to any salad, winter or spring. Commonly sprouting shiny green leaves with deep ribbing, Swiss chard comes with stems in a variety of prismatic colors, from golden yellow to ruby red to magenta. Hybrid seed mixes with names like “Rainbow,” “Celebration,” and “Bright Lights” describe some of the thrill that Swiss chard growers feel when their crop is at its peak, decorating the garden like a string of Christmas lights. But this plant continues to shine when winter hits, helped along by row covers or other protection.
Once coveted mainly by Mediterranean cooks who used chard in dishes like pizzoccheri, the plant is now a North American favorite used interchangeably with spinach. Often overlooked for salads, Swiss chard brings color and crisp texture to the salad bowl when harvested as baby greens. A late summer planting seeded densely will usually provide ample chard for winter salads from this moderately hardy plant (although heirloom varieties are known to outperform the rainbow hybrids).
Swiss chard is an easy-to-grow biennial high in vitamins A, K, and C, along with dietary minerals like potassium, calcium and magnesium. Eating chard raw in salads preserves these nutrients, which are usually decreased by the heat of cooking.
Winter Purslane (Claytonia or Montia perfoliata)
Also known as Claytonia or Miner’s Lettuce, winter purslane is a succulent green with a buttery texture that tempers winter salads with its tart, pleasant flavor. Once derided as a weed by many gardeners, winter purslane now graces plates in gourmet restaurants as part of salads, soups, and sautés.
Rich in vitamin C, winter purslane helped stave off scurvy for dogged miners pursuing pay dirt during the California Gold Rush. In a study conducted by the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, researchers found the plant also contained 22% of the recommended daily intake of vitamin A and 10 % of the recommended daily iron.
Like garden sorrel, winter purslane (which is not a true purslane, taxonomically speaking) is best picked when small for salads. In milder climates, sow in late summer or early fall for a winter crop. (You can sow later if providing cover.) In colder climates, sow in late summer and cover with cloches or cold frames for winter protection. Plants will tolerate temperatures of -15°C (5°F) and usually self-seed.
Garden Sorrel (Rumex acetosa)
The first time I encountered cultivated sorrel, I was a young vegetarian student helping an elderly friend with her garden. She served me a sorrel and goat liver sandwich for lunch. At the time, I was exceedingly grateful for the sorrel’s lemony zing, and commented repeatedly on its flavor when she asked me how I enjoyed the sandwich. (In this case, manners triumphed over politics.) At the day’s end, she rewarded me with a sorrel plant for my own garden, which went on to provide fresh and zesty salad greens for over seven years.
Always our first leafy green to sprout in spring—and from a perennial rootstock no less—sorrel shoots its arrow-shaped leaves straight at the sky before relaxing into a pale green bouquet. Its leaves are thicker than lettuce and work equally well in soups as they do in salads, although they are best picked small (3 to 4” long) if consuming raw.
In warmer climates, sorrel will hold in the garden right through the winter, providing significant amounts of dietary fiber and vitamin C in a season short of fresh produce. Sorrel also contains vitamin A, B-6, iron, magnesium, potassium, and calcium.
Chickweed (Stellaria media)
Although I knew chickweed was edible long before I deigned to eat it, I changed my mind after finding it chopped and scattered artistically across my spit-roasted lamb in a Moroccan restaurant. (The vegetarianism didn’t stick.) Slightly sweet and wholly delicate, chickweed converted me completely when I found it growing in my garden long after winter frosts had chilled the chlorophyll from my lettuces.
Not only is this little plant rich in nutrients like calcium, magnesium, potassium and niacin, chickweed has six times more vitamin C than spinach and 83 times more iron. If you are searching for an all-purpose winter green that you can grow without even planting, chickweed deserves your attention. Its stems, leaves, and flowers are all edible. Similarly, this winter annual has been used medicinally for centuries to treat inflammation and skin conditions.
In our garden, chickweed is the “welcome weed.” Each fall, after we’ve harvested squash, cabbages, and beets, we let the little plant overrun bare soil, effectively sealing up the space so other, less desirable weeds can’t take hold. Over the next three months, we harvest chickweed along with kale, spinach, and the other greens discussed here, using it as a garnish or to flesh out salads. Its tender texture is a welcome respite from the (often) tougher greens of winter.
Mustard (subspecies of Brassica rapa and juncea)
Although not as cold hardy as kale, some varieties of mustard greens can sustain light frosts and survive under cover when harder frosts threaten the garden. They also come in an incredible variety. Pungent and peppery, toothed or lacy, mustard greens like Mizuna are a staple of the spring mixes sold in North American grocery stores. Others like Komatsuna—also known as mustard spinach—are tender and mild enough to form the bulk of a salad without overpowering its flavor.
High in vitamins A and K, and containing moderate amounts of B vitamins, mustard greens also contain dietary fiber and essential nutrients like calcium, iron, magnesium, and selenium. Plant in early spring for a shorter harvest (mustards like cool weather and will bolt when hotter temperatures arrive) or sow in fall for a longer harvest through the winter months.
Winter Growing Tips
Despite being easy to grow, these underrated greens will benefit if you observe a few guidelines along the way.
1. Plant extra. While variety is the spice of life, abundant plantings mean more winter salads for your eating pleasure. Since most plants stop growing once winter’s darkness descends, you’ll need to seed enough to compensate. You can also plant your seeds more thickly, since baby greens and immature leaves require less spacing between plants than their adult counterparts.
2. Mulch well. Once your plants are established, a generous layer of mulch will provide insulation against winter’s bite and protect the soil (and delicate plant roots) from erosion.
3. Use cold frames, row covers, or a greenhouse where available. As noted above, some greens benefit from cover once harder frosts hit. A little protection can extend your season and ensure you have fresh salad all year round. Typically we plant winter greens outside in late summer and early fall, then transplant moderately hardy varieties to our greenhouse or hoop tunnels in late fall.
4. Plant only in well-drained areas. In many areas around the continent, winter brings increased moisture and freezing. Our own water table rises dramatically during the winter season, and after some trial and error, we are now careful to plant winter greens in areas where their roots enjoy adequate drainage. Raised beds and elevated planters can also provide suitable drainage for early salad crops.
5. Protect from wind. Garden walls, house foundations, a sheltering hedge, or plastic stretched over a frame can all provide relief from biting winds when greens are nestled in their shelter. Note which direction the prevailing winter winds come from in your area and plant on the downwind side of windbreak shelters that do not provide overhead protection. In colder climates, providing some form of wind protection is one more way to extend the season and enjoy fresh salads all year round.
Shannon Cowan is an author, editor, and teacher who lives on six acres of land with her husband, daughters, and backyard chicken flock.