SALAD leaves are one of the most rewarding crops. They’re easy to grow, some are ready to eat only a month after sowing, and there’s no contest between freshly picked and those supermarket bags of limp leaves that languish in the fridge.
For the cost of a couple of packets of seeds, you can keep yourself supplied with salad all summer long, and there’s a huge range of colourful and tasty leaves and lettuces that will transform mealtimes. Salad leaves are also perfect for anyone who doesn’t have much space, as they thrive in containers.
If you are new to growing salad, my key tip is sowing little and often. Not only is this crucial if you don’t want to be faced with a glut, but it will also give you a steady supply of young, fresh leaves, which are the tastiest (leaves become tough and bitter with age). Sowing every three to four weeks is ideal.
Extend the growing season
To extend the growing season try growing hardy varieties in early spring and autumn. You can use fleece to provide extra protection from very cold weather or grow your salad leaves under cloches or mini tunnels.
These plants tend to like sunshine, but they will happily grow in some shade – in fact, they’ll prefer a degree of protection from the summer sun as too much heat can make them stressed, causing them to bolt (flower and set seed prematurely). They need a moderately fertile, moist soil that has a neutral to alkaline pH, so it’s a good idea to dig in some well-rotted compost before planting, to help with soil fertility and moisture retention.
There are two main types of lettuce; hearting lettuces produce a dense cluster of leaves and should be pulled whole from the ground or severed at the base. Loose-leaf lettuces are also known as cut-and-come-again, which means you can pick leaves from around the stem and the plants will produce more. There are also edible leaves, including oriental crops such as mustards and mizuna's, which tend to have a hot, peppery flavour.
If you’re craving lighter, fresher food as we come towards the end of winter, start sowing hardy salad varieties indoors over the coming weeks. And in no time at all, you’ll have your own crop of spring leaves ready for picking.
9 salad leaves to plant now
‘Reine des Glaces’
Green jagged leaves form a tight ball as the plant matures. Allow to grow to full size, then harvest; or pick the outer leaves over several months. Has a nice crunchy texture and a good flavour.
‘Marvel of Four Seasons’
A very attractive butterhead-type lettuce with a green centre and burgundy outer leaves. As its name suggests, this French heirloom variety is hardy enough to be grown all year round.
‘Black Seeded Simpson’
An old variety with fabulous bright green, knobbly leaves. Very hardy and weather tolerant, and especially easy. Can be grown as a hearting type or pick individual leaves.
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