Whilst many plants are dormant in winter or growing very slowly, there are a number of leafy edible vegetables and herbs that are grow robustly at this time of year, providing interest - as well as food - for the gardener looking to be distracted from the stark and/or shabby parts of the garden. These crops often find the hotter parts of the year challenging and they may tend to run to seed very quickly at those times. I sometimes plant seeds or seedlings of these plants in the bare patches left in winter by herbaceous plants such as Dahlia. They are all quite decorative!
We all know how quickly leafy vegetables bought from the greengrocer or supermarket will go off, especially the bags of individual leaves. Growing a variety of your own leafy crops and being able to pick them just before they are eaten means there is maximum nutrition and freshness in the salad bowl! Eating leafy greens every day confers many health benefits, as they are rich in fibre, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients.
Lettuce (Lactuca sativa), mainstay of our salad bowls, can be grown in a tub or trough. If you grow the 'loose-leaf' types, such as oak-leaf lettuces, then leaves can be picked a few at a time, and the plant will continue to grow and produce for ages. There are so many beautifully hued small loose-leaf lettuce varieties around these days, as seeds or seedlings, often available in mixed colours, that it is possible to make a most attractive display of them - even a feature - in a large, low bowl. An unusual crop is corn salad, or lamb's lettuce (Valerianella locusta), an unusual cool-season leafy crop to add variety to the salad bowl. It grows as rosettes of dark-green leaves on short stems, looking like a compact, loose-leaf lettuce, but is from another plant family altogether.
Silverbeet (Beta vulgaris) can be grown year-round (although it will suffer in extreme summer heatwaves), whereas spinach (Spinacia oleracea) generally definitely does better in cooler weather. Rainbow chard (Beta vulgaris subsp. cicla var. flavescens) is a form of silverbeet with stems coloured golden-yellow or ruby-red, which look very decorative in the garden; one version has very dark green leaves, which look dramatic. Spinach and silverbeet can be picked leaf by leaf, and will thus go on producing for a long time. They can be eaten raw in salads or used in many cooked vegetable dishes.
The so-called 'mustard family' (Brassicaceae) contains many highly nutritious leafy crops that seem to grow best in the cooler months of the year. They all like moist, fertile soil to support their rapid growth: poor soils result in bitter, tough leaves. Like the leafy crops described above, they will all regrow after being harvested so that a number of cuts can be made; but it is a good idea to make successive sowings to ensure a long period of supply as the plants eventually become exhausted! All of them can be grown successfully in containers. Rocket (Eruca sativa), with its peppery leaves, is perhaps the best-known member of the mustard family, being a quick-growing leafy green for salads, pesto and pasta dishes. Kale (Brassica oleracea Acephala Group), another member of the mustard family, has become a trendy food in recent years. Kale is used in salads, stir-fries and many vegetable dishes. There are many decorative forms of kale, with curled or crinkly and/or coloured leaves of various shapes and sizes, which can look most attractive in the garden.
The various forms of cress are also nutritious members of the mustard family. True watercress (Nasturtium officinale) is a perennial plant with piquant, crunchy leaves and it needs lots of water, as it naturally grows in streams. It could be grown hydroponically in a garden. Garden cress (Lepidium sativum) is an annual plant, familiar to many from childhood, when it was grown on a piece of cotton wool as 'mustard and cress'! It too appreciates moisture but doesn't have to be grown in water. It has a similar flavour to true watercress but the leaves are more tender. It can be grown in small containers and kept indoors. Land cress (Barbarea verna var. praecox) is very similar to garden cress, and also appreciates plenty of water, without needing to be actually grown in it for success. It is a good substitute for true watercress for sandwiches, soup, garnishes and salads.
There are the other leafy members of the mustard family that are sometimes called 'Asian greens' - such as bok choi or pak choi, mizuna, komatsuna and tatsoi - which all seem to be cultivars of Brassica rapa. All these plants are useful for stir-fries and salads.
Common garden nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) begin to grow now, and as well as being decorative, the spicy leaves (reminiscent of watercress, though from different plant family) and the colourful flowers can be used in salads and in rice-paper rolls. Large leaves can be used themselves as wraps for salads.
Three decorative annual herbs that belong to the Apiaceae family of plants, which characteristically have a frothy cloud of tiny, umbel-like flowers, seem to be at their best in the cooler months. Coriander, chervil and parsley all have attractive lacy foliage, and all enjoy the same conditions: cool, moist, well-drained soil, and regularly fertilising. Because of their tap roots, seeds are best sown directly into the ground; but with care, they can be planted out from punnets of seedlings. Coriander (Coriandrum sativum), so useful in Asian and Mexican cooking, should be sown frequently to ensure a good supply. Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium) is a lesser-known herb with dainty, ferny leaves that have a delicate aniseed taste, and it is used in salads, soups, sauces and cooked vegetable dishes - added at the last minute so as not to obscure its suble flavour - or as a garnish. Along with parsley, chives and tarragon, chervil is one of the components of 'fines herbes', a combination that is integral to French cuisine. Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) will grow all year round, although like the other two, it is best in the cooler seasons. It is one of the best-known herbs for culinary use. Curly parsley is very decorative if grown as an edging in the garden, though the flat-leaf Italian parsley is of greater use in the kitchen.
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