For diverse diet in the winter, sow these greens in the fall

  • By Barbara Damrosch Special to The Washington Post
  • Thursday, October 20, 2016 1:30am
  • Life

By Barbara Damrosch

Special to The Washington Post

We all want a healthy diet, and we each have our own way of getting it. Some people take a daily multivitamin as an insurance policy, to make up for any vitamins or minerals they might have skimped on between the onset of breakfast and the last bite of dinner.

My approach is different. I figure that if I eat real, high-quality food, it will take care of the vitamins, minerals, fiber, phytonutrients and anything else I might need to keep on being my usual robust self. So I consume a traditional range of fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, dairy, eggs, legumes, grains, sourdough breads, coffee and wine. Most of it is organic, and aside from highly processed food, there’s little I turn down.

For me, the best nutritional insurance is diversity. In the garden, I grow as many different edibles as possible, year-round, and in the kitchen I tend to combine many of them in one soup, salad or stew. Call it the multivitamin-in-a-bowl diet.

Now that it’s September, my family and I are making sure that we go into winter with a wide variety of fresh food, in addition to what we freeze, can or dry.

Potatoes and beets go into cold, moist storage. Onions and winter squash want their storage cool and dry. Carrots and leeks can be pulled from the ground for most of the winter, with a little protection as needed.

But to have a truly diverse winter diet, we also sow a collection of baby greens for winter salads. People refer to such a medley as mesclun, a word traditionally used for a spring mix of early greens harvested in the area around Nice, in southern France. Its meaning now includes fall and winter fare, sown in late summer or early fall for a continuous winter harvest.

The leaves in a good baby leaf mix are not big ones chopped up but ones you pick when they’re a few inches tall. They’re not small for cuteness’s sake, but because they’re hardier when overwintered at ground-hugging size. They also take up less space and will even regrow when cut just above the growth point. The small size permits diversity as well, because you can fit in a wide choice of greens. All of them prefer cool weather and are winter-hardy, especially when protected by a cold frame, low plastic tunnel or greenhouse.

To make mesclun as nutritious as possible, include greens from different plant families, with leaves of different colors, textures and flavors. This will also add to your salads’ appeal.

In the aster family, you’ll find some especially hardy lettuces, such as winter density (a green romaine) or red oak leaf. That family also includes hardy parsley (the frilly type) and endives, such as the ruffled, yellow-green Bianca Riccia.

The cabbage family offers many choices, including arugula, red Russian kale with its blue leaves and handsome red ribs, and a wide selection of Asian treasures such as red Japanese mustard, mild-tasting tatsoi, feathery mizuna and the little golden leaves of Tokyo bekana. We’ve even added watercress to a winter mix.

From the beet family, we’ve enjoyed the super-hardy leaves of the variety Bull’s Blood, whose leaves turn deep maroon in the cold, and also red-striped Red Ace. We’ve used beets’ close cousin Swiss chard, from the classic Fordhook to the vibrant rainbow types, and tender, narrow-stemmed Erbette. Spinach, a mesclun staple, is in that family, too.

In the montiaceae family, you’ll find a true winter gem called claytonia, mild and succulent with tiny round leaves.

All are cut-and-come-again, except for mâche, in the valerian family, whose soft little rosettes are cut whole, just below soil level. Try it, along with volunteer chickweed and Johnny jump-ups. Those are the first edible flowers of the year, even before sorrel and tender dandelion leaves appear for your overflowing bowl of spring salad.

Damrosch is the author of “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook”; her website is

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