Friday, December 26, 2008

Winter Greens : A few years back, during a guided trip around the Centre for Alternative Technology in North Wales, the head gardener, Roger, proudly told us that he was able to put green salad leaves on the table for the staff and volunteers every day of the year. It is with similar swelling of my breast that I can tell you that the head gardener here, Gabrielle, is accomplishing a similar feat, conjuring up a variety of fresh salad leaves and winter greens.

Back in a warmer and sunnier July, Richard and Leigh came to stay in our gite. Showing them around, we approached the vegetable garden and I asked them whether they grew any vegetables. In the quiet, modest way he talks, Richard told me that he’d had an allotment for nearly 30 years (the photo below, sent to us by Leigh, show’s Richard in his allotment in Sussex). Humility is a wonderful human quality and I slipped seamlessly from talking mode into listening mode. He surveyed our raised bed system, asking questions to which I didn’t have the answer: this is Gabrielle’s domain. A day or so later, he gave Gabrielle a few packets of seeds that he’d saved from his allotment, plants that he found particularly useful over the years. He also sent some more to us once they’d returned home.

Richard gave us:
◊ “Green in Snow”—what a great name for a winter green—its Latin name is brassica juncea var. multiceps and, in Chinese, it’s xue li hong. It’s an Oriental mustard, a very vigorous, hardy and fast-growing winter green; young leaves are pleasantly spicy in salads but the more mature leaves can become a overpowering raw, while remaining useful if cooked, in a stir fry, for example.
◊ “Giant Red Mustard”, another Oriental mustard, in Latin, brassica juncea var. rugosa and aka taka-na
in Japanese. It’s a large and prolific plant that can be harvested in the winter but will grow faster in warmer weather. Use the leaves as for the other mustard.
◊ “Ragged Jack” kale, also known as red Russian kale (brassica oleracea acephala. From what I’ve read (this is our first season with it) the plants won’t keep growing all winter, although the plant should over-winter; we’re still cropping ours for the moment. It has a milder, sweeter flavour, in contrast to the peppery mustards and can be used in salad or boiled greens.
◊ Polycress (lepidium sativum) is a quick-growing cress and not, in fairness, a winter green, as such. We’re still cropping it but it is coming to an end.
◊ Land cress, also known as American cress (barbarea verna) which can be used in salad as ordinary cress or cooked, like spinach. It’s a hardy biennial, meaning it takes two years to complete it’s lifecycle. Therefore, it overwinters and, apparently with the aid of a cloche, will provide winter leaves. We don’t have a cloche but are still cropping.
And a couple that we had ourselves:
◊ Rouge d’hiver lettuce (Lactuca sativa) an old French strain of lettuce with a sweet, mild flavour, which is very frost tolerant.
◊ Perpetual spinach, which is not, in fact a spinach but rather part of the beet family, hence its other name, “spinach beet” (beta vulgaris cicla). A cut-and-come-again self-seeding, biennial. These two qualities together could confuse you into thinking it was a perennial (perennial = permaculture gold stars) it certainly acts that way. It was my veg-of-the-year last year, as we had a small slab of it, about 2 foot (60 cm) by 2 foot square, which kept us in fresh spinach-like leaves all summer. We are still cropping this although new leaf production has slowed.

So, thanks Richard, for pointing us in the right direction and supplying some seeds. We look forward to learning of other plants to add to our current winter collection. Mentions due to Joy Larkcom’s Oriental Vegetables and Ken Fern’s Plants for a Future book and Internet database.