Lettuce and other salad crops are opening acts in the spring garden, and the same goes for the second cool season of the year, namely fall. But a fall salad garden is not merely a repeat of spring, because here we have a chance to indulge in tasty vegetables that fail or put on a very short-lived performance in spring. Lengthening spring days coupled with warming temperatures trigger arugula, spinach, and radishes to bolt quickly, but the same plants grown in fall get bigger and better until they end up on the table.
Top Fall Salad Leaves
Starting with greens, the quality of fall-grown arugula will make you seek it out in a mixed bed of mesclun, and the delicate leaves won’t be riddled with holes made by flea beetles as often happens in spring. Fall-grown arugula also tastes great, without the harsh bitter notes that can develop as the weather warms in early summer. The fast-growing plants also are suitable subjects for containers, so why not have some fun? The lovely ‘Dragon's Tongue’ variety has finely lobed leaves with beautiful red leaf veins, or you can try the big-flavor bite of ‘Wasabi’, which begs to line a pretty plate of sushi.
I have been a fan of fall and winter spinach for decades, and every year I learn something new about growing winter spinach. If you’ve wanted to try red-stemmed varieties like ‘Red Kitten' or 'Reddy', fall is the perfect season to do it, but for overwintering I’m increasingly impressed with large-leafed varieties like ‘Giant Winter’ and ‘Oriental Giant’. It seems that the broad leaves do a superior job of utilizing limited winter light, so the plants hang on longer in late fall and come back stronger when growth resumes in early spring. I cover my winter spinach with a sturdy cold frame through the coldest months, the surest way to help them survive cold, wind and deer.
Speedy Salad Radishes for Fall
Fast-growing round salad radishes will grow just fine in the fall, so it’s a good time to try purple-skinned ‘Amethyst’ or carrot-shaped breakfast radishes. But again, the season of long nights presents a unique opportunity to grow beautiful Chinese radishes like ‘China Rose’ and ‘Misato Rose’, or the nutty-tasting ‘Mantanghong’ or watermelon radish. All types of daikon radishes thrive when grown in the fall, though seed germination can be erratic. Daikon radishes are among the finest vegetables for fermenting, or you can store them in your refrigerator for months.
Sowing Seeds Under Cover
In scorching or soppy weather I may start seeds of spinach indoors so I can set the seedlings out at even spacing, but I direct-seed my other fall salad crops under various types of covers. A simple shade cover held over the bed with hoops or stakes works well, though you still may need to water the seeded bed twice a day in sunny weather. To reduce the risk that the seedbed might dry out between waterings, I like to cover it with a double thickness of row cover, held in place with bricks. The row cover admits light and rain, but substantially slows surface evaporation. I remove it after a few days, or as soon as the seeds germinate.