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 autumn. But an autumn 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 rocket, spinach, and radishes to bolt quickly, but the same plants grown in autumn get bigger and better until they end up on the table.
Top Autumn Salad Leaves
Starting with greens, the quality of autumn-grown rocket 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. Autumn-grown rocket 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-flavour bite of ‘Wasabi’, which begs to line a pretty plate of sushi.
I have been a fan of autumn 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', autumn is the perfect season to do it, but for overwintering I’m increasingly impressed with large-leaved varieties like ‘Giant Winter’ and ‘Oriental Giant’. It seems that the broad leaves do a superior job of utilising limited winter light, so the plants hang on longer in late autumn 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 Autumn
Fast-growing round salad radishes will grow just fine in the autumn, 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 autumn, 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 autumn 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 horticultural fleece, held in place with bricks. The fleece admits light and rain, but substantially slows surface evaporation. I remove it after a few days, or as soon as the seeds germinate.