Growing Greens for Late Fall
Fill your salad bowl with low maintenance greens that aren’t fazed by frost.
Some gardeners carefully plan and plant to ensure a hearty crop of fall greens. I intentionally plant greens during the growing season that have a habit of hanging around until the worst of winter arrives. The result? My salad bowl sprouts a wonderful array of hearty, homegrown flavors long after Jack Frost wipes out the rest of the garden.
Some of the plants that I harvest until serious in-the-teens cold arrives include (clockwise from upper left) red cabbage, arugula, pansy blooms, dandelion greens, red leaf lettuce, broccoli leaves, Tuscan kale, chickweed and calendula petals. Of this hearty bunch, all are things I planted last spring (it’s early December as I’m writing this), except for the dandelion greens and chickweed—they’re weeds that sprouted on their own. If you’re eager to extend your greens harvest with as little effort as possible, take some tips from my laid-back garden style.
Kale shrugs at temps that make me shiver, surviving cold snaps as low as 10°F. I took this picture the morning after a 23-degree night. The leaves sailed through the chill without a single problem. This particular kale is known as Tuscan kale, nero di Toscana, dinosaur kale or lacinato kale. Pebbled leaf surfaces bring fantastic flavor and texture to salads, soups and sandwiches. If you want plants to survive for the long haul, keep an eye out for cabbage worms during summer. Treat plants with Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) to dispatch worms without making leaves inedible.
The spicy kick of arugula is a flavor I crave. One of the earliest greens in my garden, it continues to yield spicy leaves long past frost. This plant grows through heavy cold (teens) and if you add a frost blanket, you can keep picking until temps refuse to budge above 15-18°F (day and night). As you can see from the photo, I’ve picked it in snow. Arugula is a carefree crop that easily self-sows—sometimes too easily. Take care not to let it take over your garden. I let it grow among perennials as a living mulch. Don’t overlook the colorful blooms, which are also edible and keep opening even as the snow flies. Layer the pungent leaves on sandwiches, chop into salads or toss into soups for a peppery bite.
A few other edible flowers worth harvesting include pansy and calendula. In Zones 4-5, I’ve often planted these bloomers in spring and let them die back in summer heat. Fall’s cool temps coax these beauties back to life (fertilize plants the minute you spot new growth), with pansies blooming again and calendula sprouting from self-sown seeds. Adding flower petals to autumn salads and desserts is one of my garden’s best bonuses. Imagine dressing a fall carrot cake with bright orange calendula petals. Enough said.
Cabbage stands up to winter chill like a hearty Minnesotan, surviving temps into the lower 20s—and beyond. (Some gardeners report cabbage withstanding the low teens.) When you harvest spring cabbage, cut the head high on the stem, leaving behind a stem section and a few lower leaves. Buds will form on the stem and grow into loose mini-heads full of tender leaves bursting with mild cabbage flavor. Pick entire heads for soups, braising, roasting or making a pot of corned beef and cabbage. Harvest individual leaves to toss in the salad bowl.
I let a few plants of spring-sown leaf lettuce go to seed and usually wind up with some late fall greens. Young lettuce plants withstand cold temperatures better than full-grown counterparts. Expect immature lettuce to take temps to 15°F, while larger plants only make it to 25°F.
Chickweed and Dandelion Greens
Edible weeds that grow on their own and withstand frost earn high marks from this gardener. Chickweed is a nuisance as spring wears on, but in fall when new plants sprout in freshly dug areas like bed edges (above), I’m happy to pick it for adding to fall salads. Dandelion greens taste best when they’re young and tender. When harvesting weeds, make sure you’re not picking any that have been treated with lawn chemicals.
With fall broccoli, leaves are the star of the late-season show. I plant broccoli in spring, enjoy the main harvest of heads followed by mini side sprouts and then let a few plants flower. I cut things back about midsummer and am usually rewarded with a fall crop of leaves. This year’s broccoli leaves sprouted from plants in pots and were an impressive offering, considering that a groundhog ate most of the plants in July. Broccoli leaves survive to 15°F and shine in salads, stir fries and soups.