At this time of the year two of the absolute stalwarts in my garden are land cress and lamb's lettuce, aka corn salad. They're both salad plants which give of their best from autumn to spring. Through the colder months they make up for all the tender plants which are only available in warmer times. Lamb's lettuce gives a mild taste and land cress a slightly more piquant one, a bit like watercress.
As summer comes on they both soon flower and go to seed. The leaves become too small to harvest easily and the taste isn't so good. But if you leave a few plants of each kind in the ground and allow them to complete their annual cycle they'll self seed and provide you with plants for the next winter.
Sometimes they come up so thickly that they make an effective green manure. A green manure is is crop you grow not so much to eat as to benefit the soil. They cover the soil surface and protect it from the elements, while taking up mineral nutrients which would otherwise be leached out of the soil by the winter rain. Keeping the soil occupied by plants throughout the year is also said to benefit mycorrhizal fungi, the fungi which make mutally beneficial realtionships with green plants and improve their growth and health. These are just some of the reasons why keeping the soil covered, preferably with living plants, is one of the principles of permaculture.
Because they're mainly active in the winter, Lamb's lettuce and land cress can make a good polyculture in combination with plants which leaf in the summer. In my garden lamb's lettuce often comes up thickly under the raspberry canes (see main photograph), making use of the winter sunshine while the raspberries are leafless. This is what we call stacking in permaculture: growing two crops together, one tall and one short, so as to make twice as much use of the ground. It only works because they're active at different times of the year.
Rocket is another plant with a similar annual cycle, though in my garden it only self seeds in the greenhouse. It will do fine if I sow it outside, though, and I often do this. Late July is a good time to sow all three plants, though August isn't too late. Much depends on the weather. You can hand sow them each year, of course, but self-seeding saves you some work and I rather like the unpredictability of it. You never quite know when they'll come up, or whereabouts in the garden. One thing you can be sure of though - at least with my two stalwarts - is that they will come up. Once you've sown them you should never need to do so again.
Patrick Whitefield is the author of The Earth Care Manual, Permaculture in a Nutshell and How to Make a Forest Garden and The Minimalist Gardener. His titles are also available in eBook formats for Kobo, Kindle, iPad and PDF for laptops and desktops.
Patrick set up Patrick Whitefield Associates who run courses on permaculture and related subjects. For more informations please click here!