Shades of greens

Sow now, to cut colourful, tasty leaves until the end of the autumn, writes Anna Pavord
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The Independent Online
Successional sowing of seeds in the vegetable garden is very much easier to work out on paper than it is in practice. On paper you make neat little notes reminding yourself to sow salad crops such as leaf lettuce, radish and rocket at regular two-week intervals through the summer. You construct little plans like crossword puzzles, showing how all this is going to fit in on the ground available. But the weather is not a clock- watcher. One sowing bolts, another sulks. The result? A monumental pile- up of crops all ripening at the same time.

This is all part of the process of learning how to garden. When you start off, you think there must be rules to obey, and that if you obey them, success will naturally follow. As you go on, you learn that rules are much less useful than the ability to interpret what is going on round you. Your own eyes are far more valuable than any rule-book.

Some years, you can smoothly follow a sowing of broad beans with a planting of cabbages or sprouting broccoli, set in the same ground that the beans have been growing in. This year, I couldn't. The beans (`Green Windsor', Johnsons, pounds 1.45) went in on 17 March, two double rows. The crop, an enormous one, was not finally cleared off until the end of July, later than I had expected.

So the succession I had planned - a row of purple sprouting broccoli and a row of crinkly savoy cabbage - had to be kept waiting in the wings. Seeing, some time ago, that the broad beans were not going to give way in time for a smooth transfer, I potted up some of the cabbage and broccoli seedlings and grew them on in pots, until they could be transplanted. It worked fine. They are planted out now, netted against the pigeons.

The `Douce Provence' peas (Marshalls, 99p) have come and gone, too, and there's another long space where the first early potatoes, `Accent', have been lifted. Although sowing seed seems more of a spring than a late summer activity, there are in fact plenty of vegetables that can be grown from seed now in spare patches of ground.

Autumn salads are perhaps the most useful. Chervil, chicory, endive, radicchio, corn salad, land cress and purslane are all easy and relatively quick. All can be picked when young to make mixed leaf salads that will keep you going until next spring.

Aniseed-flavoured fresh chervil is a revelation to anyone who is used only to the dried kind. It is one of the ingredients in the classic fines herbes mix called for in French cookery. It's an umbellifer, like our native cow parsley, and has the same kind of very finely cut leaves. It grows fast. You can gather it six or eight weeks after sowing. Grown in deep boxes in a cool greenhouse, it will give fresh supplies of leaves all through the winter. It prefers shade to sun, which is useful in our shady garden.

Suffolk Seeds offer two kinds: plain (90p), and curled (85p). The curled is the prettier of the two. Sow it as thinly as possible, either in rows, or broadcast. It is wonderful chopped into an omelette with parsley and chives.

Chicory, endive and radicchio are all ideally suited for late-summer sowing. If you sow endive before August, it often runs straight to seed. As it is hardier than lettuce, you can harvest it until January. Endive used to be grown in great quantities in the market gardens round London, blanched and protected from severe frosts by a light covering of hay. The variety `Sally' (Marshalls, pounds 1.05) is self-blanching. The centre of each plant is packed with small white leaves, which gradually darken as they age.

The names are muddling. In France, curly endives such as `Sally' are called chicoree frisee, and the stuff we call Belgian chicory, looking like small cream bombs, is called endive. In growing terms, the major difference is that endive is an annual. Chicory is not, and in its second year, if you let it run up to seed, it produces tall sheaves of sky blue flowers.

There's just time to squeeze in a late sowing of the red-leaved chicory, which we generally call radicchio. `Rossa di Treviso' is an old Italian variety with bright red, pointed leaves, a decorative enough vegetable to grow in the flower garden. It is very hardy. Sow the seed no more than half-an-inch deep, in rows about 1ft apart. As the plants develop, thin them out until the remaining ones stand about 1ft apart. You can use the thinnings in salads.

The ideal way to pick chicory and endive is to remove a few leaves at a time, from young, scrunchy plants. If you want to cut a whole head, make the cut an inch or so above the neck. Then the plant will sprout again.

Sugar loaf chicory is the one that looks like a cos lettuce, with tall leaves wrapped around a tight heart. You don't need to blanch it as you do with the Belgian, bomb-like chicory. `Crystal Head' (Marshalls, 95p) is a sturdy variety that takes more frost than lettuce can stand. `Bianca di Milano' (Suffolk, 85p) is a reliable Italian variety. You can either leave the plants as they stand, and use them as a cut-and-come-again crop (start cutting when the leaves are about 3in high), or thin the plants out to about 1ft apart to grow on into adults.

The Oriental equivalents of these crops are mibuna, pak choi and Chinese cabbage. They are also ideal for autumn planting. If you want to cheat (as I do) you can order young plants to set direct into the ground. Marshalls is offering 60 plants for pounds 9.95. You get a dozen each of five different kinds, including the vigorous mibuna called `Green Spray'.

Mibuna has long, narrow leaves that grow in an elegant clump, arching out slightly from the centre. The clumps can be almost 2ft across. Like its cut-leaved relative mizuna, it prefers cool to heat. If you treat it as a cut-and-come-again plant, you can start to harvest a crop within a month. The flavour is mild, if you eat the leaves young. They toughen up as they age. It is equally good raw in a salad, or used in a quick stir-fry.

The other vegetables in Marshalls Oriental package are the pak choi `Mei Qing Choi', kai laan, which you use a bit like our sprouting broccoli, a hybrid Chinese kale called `Autumn Poem', and the Chinese cabbage `Kasumi'. Stuffed cabbage recipes usually stipulate European-style cabbage, but the Chinese type is just as good, and doesn't need so much cooking.

Orders for oriental vegetables must be in by the end of August. Contact SE Marshall, Wisbech, Cambridgeshire PE13 2RF (01945 466711). Suffolk Herbs are at Monks Farm, Coggeshall Rd, Kelvedon, Essex CO5 9PG (01376 572456)