Focus on Winter lettuce

Our recent cooler morning and night-time temperatures are a cue to start planting cool season crops, but if you’re not ready to let go of summer just yet, plant salad greens that can withstand the colder months.

Many lettuces and salad greens actually do better when the mercury drops, producing succulent leaves that don’t bolt as quickly as in the summer heat, such as the leafy endive, ‘Riccia Romanesca da Taglio,’ available from Italian Seeds Pronto (http://italianseedspronto.co.nz), which grows best in spring and autumn. Plants grow in upright bunches and leaves can be harvested in 40-50 days after sowing.

Like all rockets, the deliciously nutty ‘Coltivata Sel Ortolani,’ can stand several degrees of frost so is perfect for winter salads, much like another winter lover, mizuna, which has a mild mustard tang. Mizuna is both cold and heat tolerant, but does especially well in cooler months. It’s more tolerant of wet conditions than drought, which means it suits our autumn gardens perfectly.

I’m a great fan of miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata). It’s a hardy plant (the leaves may look dainty but they’re tough as nuts in cool weather), and in grows well in moist shade — if grown in hot, dry conditions the leaves can become bitter.

Corn salad (Valerianella locusta), also known as lamb’s lettuce, is another hardy, autumn-winter favourite green. It has a somewhat nutty flavour (some say slightly minty) with a soft texture rather than crunchy — a great winter gap filler to use in salads or cooked like spinach. Treat as a cut-and-come-again salad green or harvest whole plant. Corn salad also has the added bonus of self-seeding like crazy, although the seeds are available from most seed companies.

The advent of winter lettuces means there are now many lettuce varieties that grow very well during the cooler months, such as cos, or romaine, which grows well in autumn and winter, forming elongated heads with crunchy leaves. Some of the iceberg lettuces also perform well when temperatures drop — ‘Winter Triumph’ in the Yates range is ideal for winter harvest.

Look for butterhead lettuces too, sometimes called buttercrunch, which have rounded heads with soft, loose leaves, either green or red. I like Italian Seeds Pronto’s Lattuga (lettuce) ‘Passion Brune,’ an heirloom variety that was first introduced in 1855 — it has green and burgundy leaves.

Vivienne Bailey