Colorful, Flavorful Cool-Season Salad Greens

Colorful, Flavorful Cool-Season Salad Greens

What greens do you include in your salads? For most people, the list starts with lettuce, and some include spinach. The adventurous among us may venture beyond those two if the restaurant offers more. Home gardeners, however, can easily expand that list to over a dozen or more greens, fresh from the cool-season garden.

The fall-through-spring season is “salad-green season” here in Texas. Many of our greens are quite cold hardy, taking on winter with an occasional covering during a hard freeze. Add a series of hoops over the row to make covering and uncovering easier, and the list of cool-season greens expands even further.

If your salads haven’t ventured beyond the traditional, consider taking them up a notch with more color, more nutrition and way more flavors. Here are some ways to do just that.

Lettuce (Lactuca sativa). Consider planting a blend of leaf lettuces rather than one type by scattering seeds evenly across the bed rather than in rows. Plant a mix of green, burgundy and speckled varieties of leaf lettuce to add color and variety to the bowl. Harvest by “mowing” the crop about two inches above the ground with scissors. Then allow the plants to regrow for the next harvest.

Spinach. Spinach harvested at the “baby-leaf” stage adds some nutrition to the traditional lettuce bowl. There are many great varieties for home gardening, including some more recent arrivals such as ‘Corvair’ (which is especially dark green) and ‘Space’. For added color, the variety ‘Red Kitten’ has red petioles and leaf veins.

Chard. This green is usually grown for cooking but works well when harvested young as a salad component or substitute for lettuce on a sandwich. Varieties like ‘Vulcan’ and ‘Rhubarb’ have deep-red petioles and leaf veins, although the petioles are not generally used in salads, unless very young. ‘Bright Lights’ offers a mix of colors.

Beets. Although on TV Dwight Schrute never mentioned this in The Office (to my knowledge), beets are more than just roots. Very closely related to chard, beet greens are tasty when cooked but also in salads if picked very young. To add color, try varieties like ‘Bulls Blood’, ‘Detroit’ and ‘Red Ace’, which have red/burgundy leaf veins and petioles. Plant densely (unlike when planting beets for roots) and harvest the tops while still young.

Sorrel. This green is prized in French cuisine but deserves a place in our gardens for both cooking and including in salads when it is young. Sorrel adds a sharp tangy flavor to salads. Leaves are most tender when harvested very young. There is a type called “red-veined” that is especially attractive in a salad mix.

Now we’ll shift to a very important family of cool-season vegetables, the brassicas, aka cabbage family and mustard family, or cruciferous vegetables. This group of vegetables is packed with health-promoting compounds, including vita-mins A, C, E and K; minerals such as calcium and iron; dietary fiber; and a group of compounds called glucosinolates, which among other benefits help fight some types of cancer.

Flavors range from distinctly bitter and pungent to very mild. While some people love the stronger aspects of brassicas, I’ll focus on the very mild members of this family.

Napa Cabbage. This easy-to-grow vegetable (a type of Chinese cabbage) has a very mild flavor in between lettuce and cabbage. Plants form large dense, upright heads and reach maturity quite rapidly. While like many Asian vegetables it may be stir fried or cooked in other ways, it is also good as a component with lettuce in a salad, adding crunchiness to the mix.

Arugula, Rocket (Roquette). This green was originally considered a medicinal and aphrodisiac plant. Now that I have your attention, it deserves a place as a salad component in our gardens. The flavor is described as peppery, nutty and somewhat tart by some. Older plants, especially of the wild types, can even become “skunky” in flavor, according to my palate! Arugula grows rapidly and should be harvested very young and used sparingly in the salad mix, as it can become quite strong and overpower the mix. Nevertheless, it is part of a wonderful, complexly flavored salad.

Kale. This vegetable was once ignored (in the South), then became a rising-star superfood. It is loved by many and unfortunately hated by others. I once heard a member of a sports-show panel say that the best way to prepare kale chips was to spray a cookie sheet with non-stick spray, spread out the leaves evenly on the sheet, sprinkle with salt and bake until crisp. Then take the tray to the kitchen trash, open the lid and the chips would easily slide off into the trash.

Despite the detractors, kale makes a good addition to a salad if you choose very young leaves (very tender) and harvest in the coldest season, when it is mildest. Kale comes in frilly- and flat-leaved forms from bluish-green to burgundy/purple. The variety ‘Redbor’ is often grown as an ornamental but is also a great choice when harvested young to add eye-catching color. Although you can harvest the youngest leaves from traditionally grown kale plants, I like to plant it densely and harvest it at the baby-leaf stage, as I mentioned with lettuce and spinach above.

Chijimisai (Misome). This cross between tatsoi and komatsuna is my favorite newcomer in this year’s garden. Like its many cruciferous cousins, it is packed with vitamins, nutrients and minerals. The broad, rounded, slightly savory leaves are very deep green and very mild in flavor compared to many of their cabbage family relatives. Chijimisai is great for cooking, and it is also outstanding for the color, nutrition and flavor it brings to a salad when the leaves are harvested very young.

Bok Choi (Pak Choi). This non-heading green, a member of the cabbage family, is a compact variety that produces six-to-eight-inch meaty, spoon-shaped leaves. It is a staple for Asian cooking, excellent for stir fries, soups or simply raw in salads.

Mizuna. Popular in Japan, this green produces frilly foliage that can range from quite mild to more peppery, depending on variety. Color ranges from the traditional green type to dark purplish-green to bright pink-purplish lavender. How’s that for a confusing description? If that color spread sounds outlandish, go online and see for yourself. Mizuna can be harvested as baby greens in a cut-and-come-again method, or if left to grow, will form a cluster of long, slender petioles with finely cut leaves.

Komatsuna. Another green popular in Japan, komatsuna produces large, rounded leaves that are very mild, leading some people to refer to it as “spinach mustard,” even though it is a brassica and not a spinach cross. While normally steamed, stir fried or cooked in soups, if picked at the baby-leaf stage, komatsuna makes a great salad ingredient. As with most of the above greens, mowing the plants with scissors in a cut-and-come-again harvest technique provides repeated harvests. Just make sure to leave the basal two inches of stem to allow for regrowth.

Pest Note. While most of our vegetable crops can be damaged by pests and diseases, the primary pests of these salad greens are leaf beetles (such as the yellow-margined leaf beetle) and caterpillars. Both can decimate a planting if left uncontrolled. The simplest way to manage these is by covering plants early on with a fine-mesh garden netting or very lightweight row-cover fabric secured around the edges. Leave these covers on 24/7 except when you need access for harvesting. Sprays are another option but vary in effectiveness. With some crops, the pests hide inside the plants, where spray access is not attainable.

There are quite a few other species that could be added to this list of salad greens, including mache (corn salad), claytonia (miner’s lettuce) and tatsoi, to name a few. Whatever your taste preferences, consider expanding your cool-season salad-green plantings from two to a dozen options. Try various ingredients, combinations and proportions to suit your taste buds and create a salad that provides an assortment of colors, textures, nutritional benefits and flavors.

By Robert ”Skip” Richter
Brazos County Horticulturist
Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service