Winter greens 

Salad is one thing that doesn’t usually come to mind when thinking of Montana’s many wintertime offerings. Snow, yes. Cold, yes. Dark days, yes. Rock-hard frozen ground, yes. All these things are consistent with Montana in winter but inconsistent with fresh leafy greens.

This, however, is no longer quite the case. For the past few years a young man sometimes known as the Greenoisseur has been developing ways to grow salad greens inside greenhouses within greenhouses. The Greenoisseur acknowledges getting most of his ideas from Maine farmer Eliot Coleman, whose book Four-Season Harvest is a must-read for anyone interested in extending the growing season anywhere in temperate climates.

General information like Coleman’s must be fine-tuned to suit the particular place where one is farming. Thus the Greenoiseur and his associates have tested many designs and materials and experimented with many different types of greens to determine which do the best in our own local winter climate. One of the greens he’s tried, mâche, was recently discussed in a gossip-filled New Yorker profile of a man named Todd Koons, who grew up to be a leading innovator in California’s salad renaissance. As a young lad, Koons went to work as a salad maker at the legendary Chez Panisse in Berkeley.

Nowadays, Koons’ newest obsession is the salad green mâche, long a staple in France. Not coincidentally, mâche is also the newest hot item in Northern California’s Salinas Valley salad scene. And Salinas Valley is to salad what Nashville is to country music.

Koons’ mâche empire is in no immediate danger from Montana—at least not in winter—because the Greenoisseur has determined that mâche can’t handle the cold. Nor can escarole, endive, frisee and most any kind of lettuce excepting romaine. But while mâche may be too finicky for winter in Montana, the Greenoisseur and his associate, Snip Dogg, have discovered that many greens actually yield a better product in winter than in summer. “To the trained salad eater,” explained Snip Dogg, “the cold clearly takes a bitter edge off of the greens in the mustard family, like kale and arugula. Spinach tastes better, too.”

The Greenoisseur was shaking his head. “It’s gotten to the point,” he said, “where I can’t even eat summer arugula anymore.”

I learned all of this while standing in the fields of the Garden City Harvest community farm in the Rattlesnake Valley. The December sky was gray and blowing hard, and the fields were brown. In the middle of this cold and forlorn place, the Greenoisseur and Snip Dogg sat on upturned five-gallon buckets. They held scissors with yellow rubber gloved hands, and they snipped baby spinach, leaf by leaf. My hands were so cold I could barely hold my pen to the notebook, much less read my stiff scribbles. The salad boys were cheerful.

“We’re still harvesting spinach we planted in August,” said Snip Dogg. “We weren’t expecting the outdoor stuff to do this well.”

To help the spinach keep growing, they keep it covered with a white fabric that insulates sensitive plants against the cold but still lets in the light. Inside the greenhouses, some of the beds are covered in the same fabric. It’s warm in there, especially in the inner greenhouses. Moisture beads on the inside of the plastic, and the plants are lush.

The Greenoisseur and Snip Dogg operate a community salad service called Wintergreens. Every week they harvest for 20 clients, each of whom receives more than half a pound of salad mix. The clients pay between $100 and $150, based on a sliding scale, for 20 weeks worth of salad, from October to March. If you go to the store in winter and check out the price for California salad, you will see that Wintergreens clients are getting quite a deal.

Wintergreens is one of several community food services offered by Garden City Harvest, including a summertime weekly produce subscription from June to September and the Grubshed winter storage option, which provides a big stash of winter storage food—onions, winter squash, carrots and potatoes, as well as freezable crops like corn, string beans and kale. Diehards who buy all three of Garden City Harvest’s weekly subscription products can eat locally all year long, and cheaply.

Meanwhile, the salad boys continue to experiment with new techniques, materials and plant varieties, and they continue to be surprised and inspired by what they learn. And they’ve got big plans for next year. They want to increase production, add clients (from their waiting list), try other veggies, and maybe even pick up some wintertime restaurant accounts.

Thus, what started as a school project has turned into a job. “I got sick of writing papers and turning them in,” the Greenoisseur reflected, munching on a leaf of spinach. “This is so much more real, so much more satisfying.”

“And the chicks…” marveled Snip Dogg. “The chicks really dig salad.”

flash@missoulanews.com

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