Raphael Holinshed, whose 16th-century Chronicles provided Shakespeare with some of his best plots, wrote that when Catherine of Aragon wanted a decent salad, she had to send over to Flanders to get it. Francophiles might still feel the same. But olive oil has now escaped the chemist's shop, lettuce has been reinvented, and chicory and endive are listed in every seed catalogue. And we have discovered that rocket is as easy to grow as mustard and cress. Only a smudge of garlic round the inside of a salad bowl stands between us and a mÃ©lange as good as anything you'd find on the other side of the Channel.
Successional sowing is supposed to be the key to a series of full salad bowls, an endless conveyor-belt of salad vegetables, seamlessly presenting themselves in perfect condition, each crop neatly dovetailing with the next. A little rocket here, a soupÃ§on of mixed saladini there, a two-week timetable of sowings - it sounds so easy, so achievable. But does it work?
If the weather is very hot, seed germination may be delayed. Conversely, the growth of rocket, radish, spinach and other crops above ground will accelerate. If it is cool, lettuces will remain in good condition for a long period, so your second and third sowings may come on tap while you are still content with your first. So it's not quite as neat it seems, but at least you can spend this month dreaming that 2007 might be different and ordering up the seeds you'll need to provide an almost year-round supply of salad leaves. They'll taste far better than the supermarkets' bagged equivalent, which are washed in a chlorine solution at least 10 times stronger than anything allowed in a public swimming pool.
There is at least one principle you can hang on to: the shorter time it takes a crop to come to maturity, the more successional sowings you have to make. Salad rocket, for instance, grows quite fast (wild rocket is slower) and there is a noticeable difference in taste and texture between its young leaves and its old ones, which are unpleasantly strong.
The terminal leaf of a rocket plant is much bigger than the others, and once this has been nipped off for consumption, the crop goes slowly downhill. But if you sow your first lot in March, you can expect to pick it five or six weeks later. As with spinach, you get the best crops in spring and autumn, when the plants resprout quite vigorously. In the heat of summer, rocket runs to seed fast. Although you can use its flowers in a salad (they taste just as peppery as the leaves), they are not worth the loss of the green stuff. You can slow down the tendency to bolt by sowing summer crops in semi-shade and also by keeping the patches well watered. Watering moderates the flavour of older plants too.
For this crop, you don't even need a garden. Rocket will grow perfectly well in a pot or seed tray on a windowsill. You can sow it in a windowbox or a Gro-bag, a little at a time. Suffolk Herbs sell it for £1.29 a packet, while Marshalls offer three different kinds: salad rocket (95p), an olive leaf wild rocket (95p) and Turkish rocket (£1.25), which is said to be slightly more resistant to attacks by flea beetle.
Flea beetles (there are 130 species in Britain alone) feed on plants of the brassica family, which includes wallflowers, radish and turnip as well as rocket. You know they have been visiting when you find young leaves peppered with tiny holes. April and May is when they are busiest, feasting on the nesh young foliage of plants that may be so discouraged by their attentions that they keel over and die. Once plants are past the juicy stage, they become less attractive to flea beetles. But the same goes for us, too.
Flea beetles have increased hugely in numbers since oil-seed rape became a widespread agricultural crop. They can be black and yellow, or bluish-black all over and are about a quarter of an inch long. You'll know them by the way they jump. But how do you deal with them? You can concentrate on keeping seedling crops growing fast, hoping to outpace them. You can also protect seedlings with fleece covers. If you are really cunning you can catch flea beetles on a sticky trap, by tickling the foliage of your seedlings while the beetles jump on to the trap you are holding over the top. But this method is very hit and miss. Mostly miss.
In a small space, one of the most productive ways of growing fresh salads is to use the cut-and-come-again technique. You can make your own seed mix of salad crops: salad rocket, oriental greens such as mizuna, mibuna and the mustardy komatsuna, a spinach such as 'Emelia' or 'Dominant' and loose-leaf lettuce such as oakleaf or 'Merveille de Quatre Saisons'. If you don't want to splash out on that much seed, buy ready-made mixtures such as Salad Misticanza (Chiltern Seeds, £1.57) or Oriental Saladini (Suffolk Herbs, £1.29). Sow the seed in a container or compact patch of ground and scissor off the young leaves when they are between 3-6 inches high. Make the cut just above the first seed leaves (that's usually about half an inch above ground).
This technique, which you can use with different kinds of lettuce, young spinach, endive, chicory, purslane, Chinese mustard, mizuna and land cress, gives you the juiciest, most tender leaves. You can cut over the same patch four or five times before the seedlings either run out of steam, or shoot up to seed. Much depends on the weather and whether you remember to water.
Rocket, leaf lettuces and corn salad or mache can be sown any time from early spring on. Mache grows flat, like a rosette of lawn dais leaves, so is best grown separately and cut as a whole rosette. Most chicories and endives are best sown from June onwards. You sow it just like lettuce, then thin out the plants so that they stand at least a foot apart. They make flat-faced mops of growth, tight-hearted, curled, crisp, stronger tasting than lettuce. If you sowed the Italian variety 'Grumolo Verde' (Suffolk Herbs, 99p), you could use the summer leaves young and small for salads, then leave the rosettes to develop and overwinter so that they can provide another early crop for cutting next spring.
Catalogues and seeds and starter plants from Chiltern Seeds, Bortree Stile, Ulverston, Cumbria LA12 7PB, tel: 01229 581137, fax: 01229 584549, or www.chilternseeds.co.uk; S E Marshall & Co Ltd, Alconbury Hill, Huntingdon, Cambs PE28 4HY, tel: 01480 443390, fax: 01480 443391 or www.marshalls-seeds.co.uk; Suffolk Herbs, Monks Farm, Coggeshall Rd, Kelvedon, Essex CO5 9PG, tel: 01376 572456, fax: 01376 571189 or www.suffolkherbs.comReuse content