Grow your own winter greens -- This time next year, you could be supplying your family's daily quota of salad greens without ever going to the grocery store. It's easy and inexpensive. You'll be harvesting tasty greens like spinach, mizuna, chard and arugula from September through May nonstop. All you need is a simple unheated plastic hoop greenhouse and a selection of frost-tolerant seed.
Greenhouse designs abound. Automatic sprinklers and ventilation systems, circulation fans, fancy insulated coverings and various heating ideas can make the venture seem overwhelming and expensive. It really isn't necessary to talk heat pumps, solar gain and R factors.
For the specifics of a built-from-scratch hoop-house design, try a book called Four Season Harvest written by Eliot Coleman. If you want to purchase a kit, try Steuber Distributing Company in Snohomish, Wash. (360-568-2626). Building the frame with wood certainly works, but a metal frame using the kind of tubing found in chain link fencing is ideal because it lasts a long time.
Depending on its thickness, you'll have to replace the clear plastic covering every two to four years. For cheap (often free) aluminum screen doors and discarded storm windows, visit your local window shop. Most hoop-house design plans and kits don't have what it takes to mouse-proof your garden. The simplest solution is to buy quarter-inch hardware cloth and tack it 16 inches down around the perimeter of your hoop-house and then backfill with soil. Don't forget the area directly below your door. Mice will use even a formal entrance to get inside and nibble on your greens.
Choose a location with plenty of winter sunshine. Don't worry too much about the occasional tree or building blocking the sun's rays. It isn't labor-intensive, other than plucking the occasional dead leaf and keeping debris cleaned up. In wintertime, watering isn't necessary because of condensation.
You'll do your planting in the late summer, in August or September. After everything sprouts, you're ready to sit back and eventually gather spinach for an egg souffl & eacute; or shirred eggs, kale for some creamy potato soup, or parsley to garnish some steamed cauliflower. You can make a batch of parsley pesto as a dipping sauce for shrimp, concoct a mustard vinaigrette for a gourmet show-off kind of salad, or create an au gratin Swiss chard with baby beet greens. If you live in an area with a short growing season, your hoop-house becomes a hothouse in the summer and provides the perfect place to grow your tomatoes.
Below are some tried and true crops that over-winter nicely.
Good sources for seeds are:
Johnny Selected Seeds in Winslow, Maine (207-861-3900; www.johnnyseeds.com; e-mail: email@example.com).
Abundant Life Seed Foundation in Port Townsend, Washington (360-385-5660; www.abundantlifeseed.org).
Bountiful Gardens in Willits, California (707-459-6410; www.bountifulgardens.org; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org).
Territorial Seed Company in Cottage Grove, Oregon (541-942-9547; www.territorialseed.com).
Arugula -- The tangy leaves of this salad favorite are more tender and mild during winter months. Summer arugula is often too strong for most palates, but winter arugula adds a snappy flavor to salads. This plant is exceptionally well adapted to winter gardening.
Fennel -- This herb is eye-catching when you include it in salads. A little goes a long way, since it is strong on flavor. Like dill, it has feathery foliage.
Kale -- Common kales such as Red Russian, Winterbor and Redbor are excellent choices. However, in the "flowers" section of seed catalogs, look for the garnish and flowering kales. Try White Peacock, Nagoya Red, Sunrise and Sunset. In salads, their colors are stunning, their leaves are delicate and their flavor is mild.
Mizuna -- This unique Japanese mustard regrows every time you cut it. It has pencil-thin white stalks and deeply cut fringed leaves. The flavor of this plant is absolutely gourmet. Spokane, by the way, has an equally gourmet restaurant named after this plant.
Parsley -- Available in several shapes and flavors, parsley is a flavorful herb that is medicinal, aromatic and stimulating to the digestive system.
Spinach -- Choose from dozens of different varieties. They are all suitable for a winter garden.
Swiss Chard -- A great variety for winter production is called perpetual chard. As the name implies, it produces a "perpetual" harvest of small, smooth dark-green leaves that are excellent for salads as well as egg dishes and soups.
Tat Soi -- This unique Asian green is easy to grow. Its leaves are small and spoon-shaped.