Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Growing Salad Greens in Texas during the Fall and Winter

Fall and winter are some of the best times to grow salad greens in Texas! Why? Because salad greens thrive in temperatures between 40 to 70 degrees and withstand light freezes (to 28 degrees), without any protection. The cooler temperature also insures that the crop of salad greens lasts longer because hotter temperatures make them go to seed (bolt), and become bitter and inedible. You can enjoy fresh, endless greens from November to early May!  No pests will be alive after the first frost to eat your salad greens. Home grown salad greens are fresher and are said to contain more vitamins and minerals than those bought in the store.
A salad made of loose-leaf lettuces, spinach and roquette with edible flowers
pansies (blue), and nasturtium (orange). This salad was actually made in the spring.
All ingredients are home grown except the olives.

My Favorite Salad Greens:

Some of my favorite salad greens are Lolla Rossa (red loose-leaf lettuce), Royal and other Oak Leaf lettuces, Four Seasons lettuce, Swiss Chard, Spinach (Bloomsdale Long Standing), and Roquette. All of the lettuces and other greens are loose-leaf varieties.

Colorful and mild tasting Four Seasons lettuce.

Roquette is a fast-growing, zesty, peppery tasting green..
It is also known as Arugula in Italy and Rocket in England.

I prefer to grow loose-leaf varieties because I can harvest the outer leaves when needed without harvesting the entire plant. New leaves are always growing from the center, so taking outer leaves does not disturb the growth. This practice of only harvesting the outer leaves insures that you have a continuous crop with no downtime while you wait for a new plant to grow to maturity.  Here are some other loose-leaf lettuce varieties from Cooks Garden. Cooks’ Heatwave collection would be good for Texas. 

How to Plant Salad Greens:

Plant from seeds in late September and in October in a sunny location. Plant lettuce and roquette seeds 1/8” deep and spinach 1/2" deep and thin to 6” apart and leave between 8” to 1’ of space between rows. Plant Swiss Chard 1/2" deep and 8” to 1’ apart with 18” between rows. Do not plant spinach and Swiss Chard next to each other. Lettuce and roquette seedlings should emerge in a few days, while spinach and Swiss Chard emerge in 7 to 10 days. 

Harvesting Your Salad Greens:

Once your lettuce, spinach and roquette are 6” tall and the Swiss Chard is 8” tall you can begin to harvest outer leaves. Use a pair of scissors to gently clip off the outer leaves within one inch from the  base of the plant.

Harvesting an outer leaf of Four Seasons lettuce.

Harvesting Oak Leaf Lettuce in a densely grown cold frame. You may need
to move the leaves around a little more to find outer leaves in this situation.

Protecting Your Salad Greens from Hard Freezes:

As stated earlier all of the salad greens will survive a light freeze (to 28 degrees), without any protection, but some will need a little more protection for temperatures that are colder. All are cold hardy to 25 degrees except Bright Lights Swiss Chard which is cold hardy to 28 degrees. If snow or ice are expected or the temperature falls to 25 or lower for the lettuce and 28 or lower for the Bright Lights Swiss Chard you will need to provide some protection for them. You can simply put a blanket over the plants for the night. Remove the blanket after the snow or ice has melted or the temperatures are above 28 degrees. Also make sure to water your greens when the ground is even slightly dry. Greens that have enough water in their cells can withstand freezing weather much better than a dry plant. Floating row covers are also good for protecting your plants. These are simply frost fabric draped around metal hoops. The material and hoops can be bought at a nursery or online. Here is a description of them from Gardener’s Supply.

Growing Greens in Cold Frames:

A cold frame is basically a south facing box set partially into the ground with a plexi-glass top that creates a protected and warmer growing environment for plants during the winter. It is perfect for winter greens. If ice or snow is expected, just shut the lid.

Most of the winter, I have the lid propped open a few inches. This way the salad greens are more protected and kept warm. During our 70 degree winter days, I open the cold frame door all the way.

The cold frame needs to be built in a sunny area in the south so that it can collect as much sun as possible. The cold frame works by passive solar means. The sun enters through the plexi-glass top during the day and the heat is stored in the ground. When the temperatures drop at night the heat is released into the inside of the cold frame to keep the plants warmer than that outside temperature. It is an amazingly simple and fun gardening structure. My cold frame measures 4’ wide by 6’ long. This size is large enough to raise enough salad greens for a family of 4. Lettuce and spinach are all spaced approximately 6" apart to take advantage of the space. I usually plant my most prized lettuce varieties and spinach in the cold frame and plant taller Swiss Chard and durable roquette and parsley in the regular garden beds (and cover if needed). Some past Texas winters were so mild that I did not need to cover the greens outside the cold frame even once.

Growing Greens Under Cloches:

Don’t have a cold frame, then make cloches from clear plastic bottles. Cloches are like mini-greenhouses.  Just cut the bottom off the plastic bottle and voila, you have a cloche.

Water bottles with the bottom cut off make great cloches.

Put one cloche over each plant.  Push the cloche in the earth at least a half an inch so that they don’t blow off.  Leave the lid off at all times except when ice or snow is expected. When ice and snow are forecast, just put the lid on and take it off after the snow melts.  If a plant gets too large for the cloche the edges of its leaves can get a little freezer burned if they are pressed to the edge of the cloche and ice or snow form on the outside. The leaves are still edible-just cut that part off.

When you get ready to pick some salad leaves, just remove the cloche and clip off a leaf or two with the scissors and then put the cloche back over the plant.

When watering plants under cloches, just sprinkle water in through the top hole. I cup my hand over the end of the water hose and funnel the water into the holes of the cloches. This is really easy if you have arranged the plants/cloches in a row.

Good luck to you. I hope you have fun growing and eating your salad greens.