What happened when King George wanted a salad with his Christmas dinner? He would have had to rely on his trusty gardeners to provide him with the ingredients, whatever the season.
Nowadays, we are so used to being able to buy fruit and veg all year round, it’s easy to forget that unseasonal food was once the crowning art of the kitchen gardener.
The royal gardeners of the 1700s revelled in their ability to serve fresh asparagus in January, apricots in April and melons by May. They managed this through a combination of using composting horse manure for heat, straw and rush matting for insulation and glass cloches for maximising sunlight.
But just as tricky is the art of delaying the ripening of crops – apparently Queen Elizabeth I’s love of cherries was well known, so when she was due to visit the house of a nobleman in autumn, he instructed his gardeners to keep a cherry-tree covered and cool through the summer to delay the ripening until her arrival.
Winter salad ingredients
But back to that December salad – what could have been on the menu?
Well, there are some crops that can be sown in the late summer, ready for harvest through the winter.
- Corn salad is a good lettuce substitute and if sown at 2-week intervals from late august until late October, it should provide greens all winter.
- Cresses, mustard leaves, rocket and ‘Ragged Jack’ kale are all members of the Brassica family, so are perfectly happy in the British winter and can be sown in succession from late August to late September. Another lesser-known star of the winter salad is Winter Purslane, also known as Miner’s Lettuce, also best sown in September.
- Lettuce too shouldn’t be ruled out – varieties such as ‘Parella Rossa’ and ‘Marvel of Four Seasons’ sat through both frost and light snow at Hampton Court Palace last winter. Individual leaves were picked as required, and then come April; they made large heads before running to seed as soon as the weather warmed.
- Try peas, broad beans, mustards, cress or herbs sown thickly in shallow containers and cut with scissors when they reach the 2 – 4 leaf stage. This assortment of leaves really comes together when mixed up as a salad. The heat of the mustards, cresses and rocket go well with the milder leaves of purslane, winter lettuce and corn salad.
- Herbs such as parsley and chervil will sit through the cold weather and add an extra taste dimension. Even better is to grate in some beetroot or carrot, which will keep in the ground in milder areas, but can also be lifted and stored in a plastic bag in the fridge for many weeks.
Winter growing tips
For all of these winter leaves, the plants will barely grow from November to February, so the idea is to get as much usable leaf as possible though the autumn and then pick what’s there until growth speeds up in spring.
Covering plants with glass cloches or with horticultural fleece, which provides a slightly warmer microclimate, can encourage leafy growth through the winter. This will also give some protection from frosts for crops that are a little more tender.
Another way of manipulating climate is to work out which places trap warmth in winter. South facing walls, patios and balconies often stay a few degrees warmer, so plant up some pots here in in autumn. Sunny windowsills are ideal for micro-leaf production, which can be done all year round.
The absolute best thing about winter growing though is that all the critters that like to infest and munch on leaves in the summer are inactive, so providing the pigeons don’t find your stash, you should be able to enjoy fresh salads fit for the table of George himself right through the winter if you get sowing now.