In the first of a two-part special, our gardening expert on leaves to see you through the season
The perfect winter salad has a little peppery heat, is robust enough to take strong-flavoured dressings, and has a sweetness that can only be brought on by cooler nights. I love a mixture of crisp lettuce, rocket, the sweet anise of chervil, and a little mustard or mizuna. As this is a subject dear to my heart, I’m going to split it into two: this week we’ll deal with lettuce, and next week all the other flavours to spice it up.
It is hard to be made to think of long nights and cold mornings when sandals and short sleeves are in order, but if sown now, winter lettuce will be up in no time, and will put on enough growth before the shorter days and colder nights set in. You can sow until the first two weeks of September to have pickings this side of New Year, and from the end of September to October to harvest the other side.
My favourite winter lettuce is ‘Winter Gem’, a hardy version of ‘Little Gem’, a dwarf iceberg lettuce. I love this one because its neat habit means it sits very happily under domed cloches and it is very slow to bolt, meaning you can still be picking from it long into spring. When it does decide it’s time to flower and starts to become a little too bitter, it’s delicious cooked.
‘Winter Density’ is another dwarf form ideal for small spaces. It has a darker green leaf and is a little less sweet than ‘Winter Gem.
‘Marvel de Quatre Saison’ is a standard for winter growing and beautiful bronzed leaves, but it is a large butterhead so needs space. It grows easily to 45cm in diameter and thus doesn’t fit quite so easily under bell cloches. But if you have space, it’s a truly handsome plant.
Lettuce ‘Can Can’ is a frisée-leaf type. It looks a lot like an endive, but comes with none of the bitterness. By removing a few outer leaves from each of these varieties, rather than harvesting a whole head, you can pick right into spring.
Lettuce seed doesn’t germinate well in temperatures over 25C, so it’s best to keep seed trays in the shade. I tend to sow all my lettuce in half seed trays, where I can get several short lines of different varieties, and then prick out into modules. I find it less wasteful this way, as seed sown direct is easily mown down by slugs. It also means you can have young plugs ready to plant out as you’re pulling out the last of the summer veg.