I need some persuading to grow my own lettuce. First, there's the slugs. And then there's the slugs. And even when you've finished growing the lettuce, and you've picked it, you still have to wash off those slugs.
But, having had no chemicals put on it and travelled no distance, freshly grown salad tastes fresh, delicious and totally healthy. So I am desperate to change my ways: currently a guzzler of supermarket mixed-salad bags, I'd love to produce a nice French mesclun in my own back garden. But how can I do it?
My answer is to make friends with Charles Dowding, who has just published Salad Leaves for All Seasons. Very timely, because my desire for sustainable salad is presently shared by about half the British Isles. But good lettuce practice is no news to Dowding, who has 25 years' experience growing organic vegetables in Wincanton, Somerset. Locals adore Dowding's salad bags, which have up to 15 different leaves in them. "I eat salad every day," he says happily, "but I eat completely different flavours at different times of year."
Dowding's philosophy is simple: pay attention. Pay attention to your soil, even if it's just a pot on a balcony. And start growing at the right time of year. "Sow the right plant in the right season, and many problems, such as flea beetles, will vanish."
Dowding is a big fan of "cut and come again" crops – salad plants from which you can carefully peel off a couple of leaves every few days, so that the main plant keeps on growing. Many kinds of salad plants, from rocket to spinach, grow beautifully like this as long as they have enough space and adequate care.
I'm starting with just a couple of pots, so what does he recommend for April sowing? "Lettuce and spinach, and something herby, such as parsley or sorrel, with that lemony flavour, to brighten up the mix," he reckons. "Or pea shoots." The latter are grown exactly like pea plants, except that you pinch out the main vertical shoot once the plant is about a foot high and add it to the salad bowl for a delicious spring-pea flavour. Keep pinching out the shoots every three weeks or so, using the plant as a salad leaf rather than a pea producer.
Then pay attention to sun and water. "Lettuces in pots might need to be watered every day, if it's a hot summer. But if it's wet, you hardly need to water at all." Think about plastic pots rather than terracotta, he advises, "So that you're not sweating out moisture all the time."
And now back to the slugs. Dowding's top three ruses to keep them at bay? Put your salad area far away from slug-havens such as walls and grass; avoid having tattered old leaves on plants which offer the pests shelter; and patrol your plot at night, killing any you find, there and then. n
'Salad Leaves for All Seasons' (Green Book, £10.95); www.charlesdowding.co.uk
Salad days: Edible leaves to grow
Little Gem lettuce
"Sweet, and easy to grow," says Dowding. £1.49, Thompson & Morgan, www.seeds.thompson-morgan.com
Broadleaf sorrel Acetosa
"Keep shady and well-watered." £1.59, Seeds of Italy, www.seedsofitaly.com
Excellent slug-resistance. £1.59, Seeds of Italy, as before
Ideal for picking small baby salad leaves over a long period. £1.69, Thompson & Morgan, as before
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