Why buy expensive, chlorine-laced, bagged salads when you can grow your own cut-and-come-again varieties with very little effort?
It's a long time since I've grown what you might call a 'proper' lettuce, with a juicy heart wrapped round with too many throwaway leaves. I'm a complete convert to cut-and-come-again salad crops, which you can sow in containers all the way through the growing season. I occasionally miss the satisfying crunch of a heart, but when I do, I whizz into our local supermarket and pick up a pack of 'Little Gem' – baby cos lettuces that are all heart and no waste.
You can grow salads in any container, provided it's big enough. A half barrel is ideal, but I also use plastic pots 28-30cm across. One biggish pot is much better than three smallish ones. A big pot doesn't dry out as fast, can contain more nutrients and allows roots more room to cruise about looking for food and drink. Salad crops don't need full sun, which is a great advantage. You can grow them on a balcony, though if the space is overhung by a similar balcony above, the plants will not be as happy as if they've got open sky overhead.
But the great thing about cut-and-come-again is that it's a speedy business. Before the plants discover they are in a less-than-ideal situation and start to sulk, you'll be scissoring off the leaves for a mixed salad. And starting off a new crop.
Successional sowing is supposed to be the key to endlessly full salad bowls, a conveyor-belt of salad vegetables, seamlessly presenting themselves in perfect condition, each crop neatly dovetailing with the next. A little rocket here, a soupçon 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 and 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 as it seems, but at least you can spend this month dreaming that this year might be different and getting 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, washed in a chlorine solution perhaps 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 now, you can expect to be picking 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 keeping pots well watered. Watering moderates the flavour of older plants, too.
This year I'm growing wild rocket (Thompson & Morgan, £1.99) to add a hot note to the rest of the salad leaves we've got coming on. These are a much milder selection: a mesclun mix of radicchio, endive, orach, mizuna, kale, mustard and corn salad (Chiltern Seeds, £2), and a herby salad leaf mix (Thompson & Morgan, £2.29) which I haven't tried before. If you want turnip tops for the tasty pasta dish, Orecchiette e Cima di Rapa, go to the Franchi website (seedsofitaly.com) where a packet of cima di rapa seed costs £1.69.
Speedy business: Before the plants discover they are in a less-than-ideal situation you'll be scissoring off the leaves for a mixed salad
In a small space, there is no more productive way of growing fresh salads than using 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 'Amazon' or 'Banjo' and loose leaf lettuce such as oakleaf or 'Merveille de Quatre Saisons'. Fill the container with compost (I use our own compost in two-thirds of the pot, topping up with bought stuff). Gently tamp down the compost and water it well. Sow the seed thinly and then scatter or sieve a thin layer of fresh compost over them. Tamp down again and give a little more water. Put a pane of glass (or some clingfilm) over the top and wait for the seeds to germinate.
When they are well through, remove the cover. Germination rates vary, but in a well-balanced mixture there should not be too much time between the emergence of one kind of seed and another. Mustard and cress is very fast. So are pea shoots. Depending on the warmth and the weather, misticanza salad mixes may be ready in as little as three weeks. Turnip tops will take about 40 days to be pickable. With cut-and-come-again crops, you don't pull up the whole plant, as you do with lettuce. You just scissor off as many young leaves as you want, when they are 8-12cm/3-5in tall. Make the cut just above the first seed leaves (that's usually a couple of centimetres 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 between now and September. Mache grows flat like a rosette of lawn daisy 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. In maturity, they make flat-faced mops of growth, tight-hearted, curled, crisp, stronger tasting than lettuce. But if you sowed the Italian variety 'Grumolo Verde' (Suffolk Herbs, £1.15) now, you'd use the summer leaves young and small for salads. If you left a few rosettes to develop and overwinter, they would provide an early crop for cutting next spring.
Thompson & Morgan: Poplar Lane, Ipswich, Suffolk IP8 3BU, 0844 573 1818, thompson-morgan.com; Chiltern Seeds: Crowmarsh Battle Barns, 114 Preston Crowmarsh, Wallingford OX10 6SL, 01491 824675, chilternseeds.co.uk; Suffolk Herbs: Monks Farm, Coggeshall Rd, Kelvedon, Essex CO5 9PG, 01376 572456, suffolkherbs.com
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