SALAD DAYS

Tue, 04/04/2017 - 09:57 -- Nic Wilson
Sowing and growing salad leaves

I love rocket and on warm days in late winter I struggle to wait until March to sow my first batch of cut and come again leaves. But by the time the clocks go back, salad sowing days have finally arrived!

The range of available leaves increases every year and it can be hard to decide between mizuna and blood-veined sorrel. Should I grow variegated land cress or ruby chard, radicchio or komatsuna (mustard spinach)? Such is the salad lover’s dilemma.

One thing is certain: cut and come again leaves offer a quick, versatile harvest. Picking little and often is ideal, whether it’s the smallest handful for a single sandwich or a whole row of rocket for a family salad, cut and come again crops can provide. It’s easy to grow salad leaves – almost as easy as shopping for yet another iceberg lettuce – especially if the shelves are empty. That’s before you consider the taste. Homegrown salad leaves can take you from the spicy depths of mustard ‘Red Giant’ and ‘Green in the Snow’ to the aromatic heights of coriander leaf and lemon sharpness of sorrel, without a watery lettuce in sight.

Follow these simple steps, keep the slugs at bay and in as little as four weeks your salads will be transformed:

  • Sow seeds now in trays or pots inside or under cloches outside, ideally in full sun in fertile, moisture-retentive soil
  • Crops can be sown outside without protection from late March/early April
  • Cut and come again crops can be sown more densely than hearting lettuce
  • Seed can be broadcast (scattered over an area) and thinned later to approx. 5cm apart or sown thinly in rows approx. 13c apart, thinning plants later to 3cm apart
  • Thinnings can be used for salads
  • Sow salad leaves successionally every 15-20 days to ensure a continuous supply
  • Keep plants well-watered throughout the growing period
  • Harvest cut and come again leaves in the morning when about 10cm high
  • Cut leaves can be stored in the fridge for a couple of days in a polythene bag

Salad leaves are also ideal to grow in containers providing there is a minimum depth of 4cm of compost (eg. in a seedtray, window box or hanging basket). Sow seeds thinly on the surface and cover with a thin layer of compost. Water using a fine rose and leave under cover in early spring and outside from late spring. In this way, container and balcony gardens can be filled with fresh, colourful salad leaves all summer long.

This year I’m growing a range of cut and come again leaves such as salad rocket, wild rocket, blood-veined sorrel, red salad bowl, strawberry sticks (chenopodium foliosum), pea shoots and ‘white silver’ chard. Good salad leaf mixes include ‘Baby Salad Leaf’, ‘Speedy Mix’, ‘Frilly Mix’, ‘Niche Oriental Mix’ and ‘Bright and Spicy’.

Before the tomatoes, cucumbers, chillies, hearting lettuces and edible flowers arrive, cut and come again crops, alongside radishes, early herbs like chives and sprouted seeds, offer tasty additions to family salads. I’m not sowing my main outdoor crops yet in my beds without cloches as it’s been pretty cold here, but I am starting off salad leaves in the unheated greenhouse and under cloches outside. It’s great to get sowing again – now my only problem is where to fit all the interesting salad leaf varieties I’ve collected over winter!

By Nic Wilson

Nic Wilson is a garden designer, garden writer and enthusiastic home grower (especially of more unusual fruit, vegetables and herbs).  She enjoys volunteering in her local community garden and experimenting in the kitchen with crops from her garden, allotment and the hedgerows.