For vegetable gardeners there is a flurry of mouthwatering firsts in July: the first shiny truncheons of courgette, the first slim, sweet carrots, the first early potatoes, the first shiny tomatoes. Perhaps even a cucumber. You can bet that somewhere, some smartypants will be saying airily, "Oh! I had those in June". But will that fantastically irritating paragon have remembered to sow more cut-and-come-again salad crops? Or a second row of French beans to crop under cloches in autumn? Or chicory, choy sum, endive, kohlrabi, komatsuna, mibuna, mizuna, oriental mustard and spinach leaf? Seed sowing is always more in our minds in spring and successional sowings of crops tend to get forgotten later in summer.
One of the best crops this year for us has been baby spinach, the leaves picked young and eaten raw in salads. I used 'Matador' (Suffolk Herbs £1.30), sown in a black plastic pot 28cm across. We grow quite a few things like this, the pots three-quarter filled with our own compost, then topped off with the more finely-textured bought stuff. If you thoroughly water the compost before you sow the seed, it will stay where it is put. Sow sparingly and cover the seed with another thin layer of compost.
Spinach likes semi-shade. In hot, dry conditions, it quickly bolts. But this is another advantage with pots. You can put them wherever you think will best suit the crop. Well watered and well fed, you can snip away at baby spinach for a month or six weeks before it starts to run up to seed. Before that happens, you need to have sown the next crop. Having your own compost helps, of course. If you are using only bought compost, pot-crops become a more expensive option. Last year, Levington's Multipurpose compost cost £12 for three 56 litre sacks. This year, it's selling at £10 for two sacks. And the sacks are smaller – only 50 litres.
Regular cropping is the key with all cut-and-come-again crops. This is especially so with raw spinach leaves. If you leave them, the taste becomes strong and the texture stringy, but at least with spinach, you have the option of cooking it instead. If the leaves chase away from you, cut them down, even if you can't keep up with eating them. Then, if the pot is well-watered and fed, you can hope for a fresh flush of growth.
For crops we need in larger quantities, I use the wooden half barrels that in spring are planted up with tulips. My favourite cut-and-come-again salad crop remains the mesclun mix sold by the French seed firm Tezier (tezier-jardin.com). I buy it from an agricultural depot quite near my brother's farm in Lot-et-Garonne. You can sow it under cover from January to March, then outside from March to August. At this time of the year, it will do best in semi-shade. The mesclun mix is made up from two different sorts of lettuce (one a romaine type, the other a looseleaf) and three different sorts of chicory with rocket and chervil as the high notes. The chervil is the key to the success of this mix. It looks good – delicately ferny – but it also has a very particular flavour, parsley with a dash of aniseed.
The key with these mixes is combining crops that not only taste good together, but germinate at roughly the same rate. At this time of year, the mesclun mix germinates within 8-10 days. The Italian salad mix sold by Thompson and Morgan (Misticanza d'Insalate, £2.29) can be sown outside until September and you should have something to cut a month after the sowing date. This mixture contains several chicories and cutting lettuces including 'Bionda a Foglia Liscia' which has smooth, pale leaves, and the famous 'Meraviaglia delle Quattro Stagioni', the Marvel of Four Seasons, which many gardeners rate as the best of all lettuces, a softly-textured butterhead, with a bronze-crimson edge to its green leaves.
Seeds of Italy, of course, provide masses of different kinds of salads and point out that just one seed packet of their cutting lettuce (most of them cost £1.69) will provide the equivalent of 50 bags of looseleaf salad bought from the supermarket (our Waitrose charges £1.99 a bag). The determined regionality of Italian vegetable seed is what makes it so fascinating: 'Rossa of Trento', a red lettuce from Trento in the alpine northwest, long red onions from Florence, flat red onions from Genova, translucent red onions from Savona, melon cucumbers from Puglia, round cucumbers from Manduria, radish from Sardinia, golden celery from Asti.
Courgettes from Seeds of Italy are particularly diverse – 18 different kinds, from Genoa, Florence, Rome, Milan, Sarzana, Bologna, Piacenza, Turin, Sicily, Naples, and the 'Rugosa of Friuli' (£1.69), "the only courgette found near Venice" said the Italian on the Seeds of Italy stand at the Chelsea Flower Show. "Very ugly, but very good to eat." He was passionate about food, that man. Like a conductor, he waved his arm down the great display of courgette seed, halting at each pack as he rolled out its name. "And why is the 'Tondo of Piacenza' courgette a round one?" he asked. Not expecting an answer, he gave it to me. "Because this is a courgette of the Parma region. Lots of good things to put inside a courgette. Good Parmesan cheese. Good Parma ham..." His voice tailed off. Was it because he was sad, stuck on a showground in England, thinking about those good stuffed courgettes and his Italian friends tucking into them back at home? Or was he mesmerised, as I was, by Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, passing by in his blindingly shiny suit?
Now is the best time to be sowing a wide range of Chinese greens, but if you haven't the space to put in whole rows of mibuna, mizuna or pak choi, then, again, pots are the answer. You can grow separate pots of the greens you like best, or choose a mix such as Oriental Saladini (Suffolk Herbs, £1.45) which you can sow at intervals from now until autumn. This will provide young leaves to use fresh in a salad, or to whizz around in a quick stir fry. Thompson and Morgan also sell a special stir fry mix (£1.69) which contains mizuna, pak choy from Canton, red mustard, texel greens and the Italian black kale, cavolo nero.
Suffolk Herbs, Monks Farm, Coggeshall Rd, Kelvedon, Essex CO5 9PG, 01376 572456, e-mail: email@example.com; Thompson & Morgan, Poplar Lane, Ipswich, Suffolk IP8 3BU, 01473 695225, thompson-morgan.com (the Misticanza d'Insalate is available retail only. For your nearest stockist, call 01473 688821); Seeds of Italy, Unit C3 Phoenix Industrial Estate, Rosslyn Crescent, Harrow HA1 SP, 020-8427 5020, seedsofitaly.com