Winter salads 2020/21 summary

So the experiment with growing salads for winter in re-used mushroom trays in the greenhouse is now over and I find myself considering how happy I am with the outcome, if I’d do it again and what I would do differently (if anything) if I do try again.

Overall, we’ve had a great mixture of flavours, colours, sizes and textures of salad leaves over perhaps three months of the last five (the first pick was on 25th October) totalling 1343g and they were a great pleasure to harvest and eat. Most of the plants did struggle to put on new growth through late January, February and early March however and I had to pick leaves from the excess plants I’d grown for this trial that I planted out in the polytunnel purely because I had the space available (albeit not the same space all of the winter…). I can’t deny that I’m pleased with the achievement, but I feel it could have gone better. In particular the green lettuces and salad rocket didn’t really perform very well with quite a few losses of the lettuces and I’d only rate the coriander as “fair” because it produced almost no leaves worth picking after Christmas. The Red Little Gem lettuces did ok, but the best performer of the lettuces was Lollo Rossa.

I will absolutely repeat the process this winter, but my circumstances have changed to make life a little easier for me in a way that may not be the case for others. The potential exists for me to grow salads over the winter in the polytunnel, the problem being that repeated hard frosts may well stunt or kill the plants and then I’d have nothing. Growing in the greenhouse is a hedge against that, and I had to grow in trays because at the time I only had access to a greenhouse with a solid floor. However, since I finished putting it together a short while ago I now have a greenhouse with no dig beds, which means I can plant salads in the ground there for the winter and don’t actually need to use the trays again. That is exactly what I will do this coming winter. The plants in the ground have generally outperformed those in the trays I would say, perhaps more so as we got into the new year, so planting in the ground in a greenhouse would seem to be the ideal method.

I will however give the trays another try because I’d like to see if I can do better, and I’ll make some changes along the way. First, I think I’ll sow seeds for all the plants I use a couple of weeks earlier and perhaps delay harvesting a little longer in order to allow them to establish better whilst light levels are a little higher. To try to maintain continuity I will attempt to keep other salad crops going in the greenhouse and/or polytunnel, interplanting them with earlier crops if necessary. I’ll also abandon sowing green-leaved lettuce varieties for the winter and stick with Lollo Rossa and a couple of known cold-tolerant varieties: Grenoble Red (aka Rouge Grenobloise) and Reine des Glaces. I’ll make sure the trays are absolutely brim-full of compost and that it is well tamped down. A number of the plants actually had roots grow out of the bottoms of the trays this year so any attempt to increase the depth available for roots even if it’s only a couple of centimetres would look to be worthwhile.

In terms of costs, back on 15th November I posted full details. The total cost to set everything up was £51.68, but given that trays and seeds may last more than one year I decided that £18.60 was a reasonable annual cost that could be reduced to just under £8.75 if I used my own compost and made up my own trays from scraps of wood. Balancing that we’ve had 1343g of organic salad leaves. A 100g bag of organic salad leaves seems to sell for around £2 based on a quick scan of my search results, so by that measure I’ve harvested just under £26.90 worth of salad for my £18.60. Organic salad leaves do seem hard to find, so it’s probably more likely we’d usually buy non-organic which look to average out at around £1.15 per 100g giving us just under £15.45 worth of leaves.

There are of course plenty of other positives to come out of this: the pleasure of growing one’s own food during a time when fresh produce is hard to grow, the lack of food miles, the reduction in waste plastic and packaging materials generally, the variety of leaves and having food the freshest it can possibly be (especially avoiding the use of modified atmosphere packaging and the associated environmental costs), so it’s not just about the money. It would however be nice to be able to say that it does make sense from a purely financial point of view and that all the other positives come for free, so that’s another reason I want to try again.

And one day I may not have the space and facilities I have now, so I should take the opportunity to experiment whilst I can and learn how to make it work as best I can so I know how to do it should the time come when all I have room for is a tiny little lean-to greenhouse with a few shelves inside (or something similar). Or if my children are in that position and want to grow some of their own food perhaps, though in all honesty my son is only likely to get interested in gardening if someone produces a pepperoni pizza seed 😀

So, a lot of words, but to summarise: Do I think it was worthwhile? Yes! Will I do it again? Certainly. Would I encourage others to give it a go? Definitely.

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