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All you need to know

Salad Leaves

Feeling impatient? Quick-growing cut-and-comeagain salads can be raised just about anywhere and will give you a crop in as little as three weeks!

Shop-bought bags of salad have become increasingly varied in content over the past few years, adding a very welcome addition to supermarket cabinets. But while this is good news for a selection previously dominated by ubiquitous, water-filled balls of iceberg lettuce, bagged offerings are expensive, and packed in quantities that see leftovers all too often turning limp or slimy at the bottom of the fridge. The good news is it’s exceptionally easy and quick to grow your own leaves from seed, saving you money and ensuring you only pick what you want, when you want it.

Salad leaves have really captured the home-grower’s imagination, and today there are countless mixes to try. Some of these are spicier or sweeter than others, and there are many different types of colours and textures available, giving gardeners the chance to experiment and try a combination for every mood – all the possible permutations would certainly keep a curious grow-your-owner busy for many seasons to come!

The thrill of growing salad leaves is the speed and ease with which they mature; the fastest can be picked within just three weeks of sowing. They may be raised in the open ground, used to make attractive edgings to borders or decorative potagers, or grown in containers, where they will take up very little room. Most are cultivated for cut-and-come-again use, whereby one sowing gives rise to several harvests through repeat cuttings of the same plants. These convenient crops should form the bedrock of any salad or stir-fry veg patch. Quick, very straightforward, and able to grow just about anywhere – you really can have the best of everything!

With so many different types of salad leaf, sowing instructions will vary, so always check the back of seed packets to see what’s recommended. In almost all cases, however, sowings can be made by marking out 1cm-deep drills spaced 20-30cm apart into prepared soil with a cane.

Tip seed very thinly into the bottom of the drill and then cover back over with the growing medium. Seeds may also be broadcast sown by scattering them thinly and evenly over the surface of the ground to create a spread. This is a particularly useful method of sowing into pots, where access between rows is unnecessary.

The earliest sowings can be made in March, but these will need to take place under cloches, where the extra degree or two of warmth will ensure speedier germination. The final sowing can be made in early autumn, again under cover, to guard against the onset of inclement weather. Suitable autumn-sown leaves include many of the Oriental salads, which can quickly run to seed earlier in the summer. Go for hardy types such as mizuna, land cress or rocket.

Be imaginative with your salad leaves; remember that they grow quickly and remain short, which opens up numerous possibilities of where to sow them. Colourful mixes make attractive edgings, or sow between slower-growing crops such as parsnip for a sneaky intercrop. These attractive plants really look the business sown into old Belfast sinks, redundant wellies or quirky containers made from recycled materials such as vegetable crates. You can also sow them into grow bags – this is a great way to use up any remaining goodness left after you’ve disposed of your summer tomatoes.

Salad leaves will germinate in as few as three or four days. If you have sown them sparingly enough they shouldn’t need thinning, but if it looks like they are going to be overcrowded, pull out some of the seedlings to give the others more room to expand. Don’t throw away these thinnings – they’re your first crop! Again, be guided by the seed packet instructions.

As soon as the spring weather warms up any cloches can be removed. This is normally around early to mid April, depending on the progress of the season. For a continual supply of fresh and tasty salad leaves you will need to sow every three weeks. It’s far better to scatter seeds little and often than in one go at the start of the season – plants will give a few pickings but will eventually grow taller to flower, so it’s necessary to always have new ones on the go. At any one time there should be salad leaves ready for picking, some recovering from a previous harvest, and others recently sown.

You will find it genuinely difficult to fail with salad leaves, which is why they are so often recommended as the perfect beginner’s crop.

To get the leaves to grow quickly, however, it is essential that the soil never dries out. Dry soil can stress plants, and initiate the natural survival response of flowering to set seed for the next generation. Tough, bitter leaves are what you will pick from flowering salads, so keep rows liberally irrigated. Water crops in the early evening when evaporation rates are low but while there are still a few hours of sunlight left so that plants can dry off a bit before sunset (moist, succulent leaves are the nocturnal slug’s dream!) Keep beds weed-free by regular hand weeding or hoeing. Repeated picking of leaves can take its toll on nutrient levels within the soil or compost. This is particularly acute within the confines of a container, so top them up by giving plants a drenching of a liquid feed, such as dilute seaweed concentrate every week or two.

Picking salad leaves may seem like a fairly obvious operation, but it’s in the cutting that many eager gardeners get it wrong.

To encourage repeat harvests from a cut-and-come-again crop you will need to preserve the central growing point of the salad plant. There are two ways to do this: by snipping along the row or over the patch to ‘carpet harvest’ your leaves, or by selecting just one or two of the biggest leaves from each plant, working your way along the rows to leave the majority of each one intact. In the former instance make a cut at least 2cm above soil or compost level to preserve the central growing point, from where the next batch of leaves will emerge. Water and liquid feed after cutting this way to stimulate new leaf production.

Selective harvesting of leaves is a good technique where space is limited and you haven’t got a large crop to play with. Cut them away as soon as they reach three to 10cm tall, taking them from the outside of the plant to leave the central rosette of foliage in place. These will in turn become the outside leaves as more growth appears in the centre of each plant. Careful harvesting will see at least three or four cuts possible – and likely many more. Always use a sharp knife or pair of scissors for the job.

Salads are best eaten fresh, when you will get the most benefit from the nutrients contained within the leaves. They will, however, keep fresh and crisp for a few days in a grocery bag, misted with a little water, in the fridge. Tougher pickings can be added at the very last minute to stir-fries for a splash of colour and texture.

Month-by-Month

  • January

    Keep picking delicious winter salads. Prepare outdoor ground by digging in plenty of organic matter to improve drainage and moisture retention.

  • February

    Finish preparing the ground for the very first sowing of the year next month. Work in some general-purpose organic fertilizer.

  • March

    Sow salads in the greenhouse in pots or border soil; or outside under cloches to protect the young seedlings from cold.

  • April

    By mid April cloches are unnecessary, and the main sowings of salad leaves can commence. Sow in drills 20-30cm apart or broadcast seed thinly.

  • May

    Salad leaves will be growing at their fastest rate thanks to the gentle warmth of late spring. Sow every three weeks for a continual supply.

  • June

    The longest days of the year see rapid growth. Keep plants well watered and feed them regularly with a liquid seaweed manure.

  • July

    This month is, as a general rule, the hottest one of the year – and this means things can begin to slow down due to the heat. Sow your salad leaves in the shade where it's cooler.

  • August

    Keep on sowing summer salad leaves, including cut-and-come-again varieties. These will be ready before autumn.

  • September

    The final sowings of summer leaves occurs this month, while autumn-sowings of Oriental salads such as mizuna can begin.

  • October

    Make the last outdoor sowing before winter arrives. Cover rows over with cloches when colder weather approaches, to protect vulnerable growers.

  • November

    A late-season sowing can be made early on in the month, under cover. Maximise light levels by cleaning greenhouse glass.

  • December

    Winter salads will still grow in any mild weather but pickings are likely to be sporadic. Nevertheless, a salad can still be enjoyed!

Next
Slimy Characters

Slimy Characters

It will come as no surprise that the biggest pests for salad plants are slugs and snails. The lush, fleshy leaves are irresistible to the slimy molluscs, which can cause considerable damage. These visitors are most active at night, when temperatures are cool and soil is moist, which helps them to get around. Wet, but mild weather is open season for them.

There are many traditional and inventive techniques for controlling these pests. Protective barriers of grit or egg shells can bring good results, or you could place upturned grapefruit shells amongst plants – the slugs will congregate under these and the shell can be discarded once there’s a full house. Other organic methods of control involve beer traps, and copper rings that can be stuck around the base of pots to prevent intruders crawling up to your precious crop. A layer of Vaseline works equally as well on containers, stopping would-be climbers from getting a grip. Wildlife-safe slug pellets may be used as a last resort, but try an organic control first. There’s a lot to be said for night-time torch patrols, when legions of invaders can be collected in one hit; caught red-handed, the slimy pests can be dispatched with a stout boot and left for the birds.

Salad Leaves: Varieties To Try

  • Beetroot ‘Bull’s Blood’

    Normally grown for its red roots, this beetroot has pretty purple leaves perfect for the salad bowl. The colour intensifies with age.

  • Mustard ‘Red Giant’

    Mustards offer a mild heat to salads and there are a number of varieties to choose from. ‘Red Giant’ is the pick of the bunch, with its large, red-tinged leaves.

  • Mizuna

    Dark green, finely cut leaves add an attractive and slightly peppery crunch to salads or stir-fries. A good leaf for autumn sowing, too.

  • Salad Rocket

    You’ll pay a pretty packet for bagged rocket – so grow your own! Both the leaves and flowers are delicious. For an even stronger flavour opt for wild rocket.

  • Kale ‘Red Russian’

    Pretty, feathery foliage can be enjoyed when this kale is harvested young. The grey-green foliage is held on stunning purple stems.

  • Italian Mix

    Tasty and ready in just three weeks, this herby mix includes peppery rocket, sweet basil, lettuce, radicchio and broccoli.

  • Land Cress

    Also known as American land cress, this peppery leaf is an easy-to-grow alternative to watercress. Try it with mildly creamy lamb’s lettuce leaves.

  • Spinach ‘Fiorano’ F1

    Smooth, subtle baby spinach leaves make the ideal salad base ingredient. This variety is resistant to downy mildew, and slow to bolt.

  • Provencal Salad Herb Mix

    This tasty mix will crop year-round given a little protection. The mix includes lettuce ‘Rougette de Montpelier’, corn salad ‘Verte de Cambrai’, tangy sorrel and chervil.

  • Spicy Oriental Mix

    Just as the name says – a deliciously piquant mix of mizuna ‘Kyoto’, mustards ‘Golden Streaks’ and ‘Red Giant’, rocket and ‘Yukina’ savoy cabbage.

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Window Of Opportunity

Salad leaves are the best edibles to raise if you only have a balcony or even no outside space at all, and window boxes are easy to prepare. Start by making sure that your container has enough drainage holes (many new plastic boxes will first need these to be increased or enlarged). Now fill the base with a 2-3cm layer of drainage material such as stones or gravel, and top up with multipurpose compost. Fill to within 2cm of the rim, firm down, then sow seed thinly before covering it over with a 1cm layer of finely sieved compost. Gently water the growing medium, and keep it moist at all times.

Two things will make window boxes tidier and safer. Firstly, make sure each one has a drainage tray to collect the water that seeps out of the bottom. This also creates a temporary reservoir so that the liquid will remain available until it is all absorbed. Check that trays an hour after watering and drain away any excess that still remains. Secondly, take care that your window box is properly secured with brackets to the sill. Heavy gusts of wind could potentially see light, dried-out containers toppling over and causing injury or damage.

Salad Leaves

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