Gardening: Bitter sweet symphony

Cut-and-come-again lettuces are perfect for even the smallest spaces, says Sarah Raven. Sow now and you will enjoy a plentiful supply of colourful and tasty leaves throughout the summer months
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WHAT DO you want from a good leaf salad? Crispness, colour and a good variety of flavours. You want a sweet leaf, but you want something bitter and something sharp and peppery too. If you can add anything with a licorice or herby taste, then so much the better. To look the part, you want small leaves in different colours: reds. crimsons and greens. Borage flowers and calendulas will add flashes of blue and orange, but this verges on the over-elaborate.

If you start sowing now, you will have salad for two or three months. Most salad leaves are hardy annuals, which will be ready for picking in about eight weeks. Like cornflowers, poppies and marigolds, they thrive from being sown straight into the ground in the middle of spring.

For the plants to do well, you need a few inches of fine, crumbly soil to sow into. Each seed has a limited food supply, stored in the seed itself, and it has to rely on this until the shoot can get into the light and start photosynthesising to make more. If the nascent plant has to push its way around huge clods of earth, it will die before it gets to the light. In a fine, airy soil, with no large stones, it can shoot straight up towards the light. That's the route to success with salad.

If you are gardening in a small area, or growing everything in pots, most of the salad leaves you choose should be of the "cut-and-come-again" variety. You won't have room for the traditional lines of different lettuce types.

With "cut-and-come-again" leaves, you can cut the whole plant to the ground, leaving only the root and a few bare stems behind. It's miraculous: a week or two later, juicy new leaves have sprouted and you can harvest the whole lot again. These plants will eventually exhaust themselves, but you will get two or three months of picking from them before they do.

If you want to go for only one packet of seeds, choose a salad mix. You will find these in the seed catalogues under the names of misticanza, saladini, saladisi, or mesclun. They contain a selection of seeds for "cut-and-come-again" leaves; usually lettuce, chicories, endives and chervil for that extra, aniseed taste.

Sow the seeds in a one-foot-wide stripe in a sunny patch in the garden or sprinkle them into a large pot. You don't need to thin the seedlings. If you pick them regularly enough they will not need to compete for light, but you do need to keep them watered and it is worth giving them a seaweed feed once a fortnight to keep them going as long as possible. There's no point in feeding them with an inorganic fertiliser, and if you do, you will have to wash them thoroughly.

Once the little plants are established - after six to eight weeks - you should be able to pick a bowl of salad for two people three or four times a week. Keep picking and don't let the lettuce get taller than about 5cm (2in) or they will outdo the rest.

If you have room for more, supplement the leaves from your mixed seed with a peppery leaf. Grow a line of rocket (Eruca sativa) or mizuna. These are both brilliant "cut-and-come-again" salads with a distinctive, hot taste. Rocket can get out of hand if you don't cut the leaves two or three times a week and eat them small and young. They can take the roof off your mouth like very mature cheddar. Both grow well in pots.

You want a few bitter leaves in the salad to make the taste complete, but not too many. You don't want a salad tasting like a grapefruit, but a small handful of leaves will add interest and cut through the richness of any dressing. There are varieties of chicory and endives in the misticanza mix. These will give you some small bitter leaves, but consider sowing a dandelion like `Pissenlit a Coeur Plein' as well. This is "cut-and-come- again", bitter, crunchy and easy to grow. If you steam the leaves and eat them like spinach, they lose their bitterness, but still have a strong delicious flavour.

For colour, go for one of the loose-leaved lettuces which produce red leaves. These have no heart, just circles of leaves, one inside the other. You can pick a few outer leaves each night to add to your salad and the plant will go on producing more. These varieties are good for bulk if you are feeding lots of people.

`Red Salad Bowl' is one of the best. It has pretty oak-shaped leaves, is slow to bolt (or flower), even in hot weather, and will last through the summer if picked regularly. You could have a line of the red, alternating with the bright acid-coloured `Green Salad Bowl' if you have a family keen on salad.

What you're still lacking is the crispness and crunch, the leaves that make salad-eating noisy. You need a lettuce with a proper heart that fills your cupped palms. You won't get the crunch with "cut-and-come-again" crops; you need to go for a line or two of a cos such as `Little Gem', or an Iceberg, `Beatrice', which has a sweet flavour and a dense, crunchy heart. Once you have picked them, the root will not re-sprout. Pull them up when you are harvesting. Once you get to the end of the line, start again by sowing more.

The thing to remember when sowing lettuce in the summer months is to pick a cool, overcast day and to water well before and after sowing.

Suffolk Herbs, Monks Farm, Coggeshall Rd, Kelvedon, Essex CO5 9PG has a fantastic selection of salad leaves, including all the varieties mentioned here (01376 572 456, fax 01376 571 189). The Organic Gardening Catalogue, from Chase Organics, Coombelands House, Addlestone, Surrey KT15 1HY is also a good list to have (01932 253 666/, fax 01932 252 707). And the French catalogue Terre de Semences has an excellent, unusual vegetable and salad list, which I can highly recommend but it has not yet been translated. Chante Alouette, 03210 Saint Menoux, France (00 33 470 43 96 92, fax 00 33 470 43 96 83)

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