Sky’s the limit for rocket: Growing your own salad leaves is an easy route to cleaner eating

Growing your own salad leaves is an easy route to cleaner eating, writes Fiann Ó Nualláin.

I am a big fan of growing your own salad leaves — it’s easy, it’s rewarding and best of all, you know what’s on your plate or in your sandwich is not laden with chemicals. Salad leaves are

perennially on the “dirty dozen” list; that’s a compilation of food ranked highest in pesticide residue levels. Growing your own means cleaner, healthier eating and less harm to the planet.

April is the perfect month to being starting all those salad plants you will be looking for come summer but it is especially prime for one of my favourites — rocket. There are two types, cultivated and wild, and both are readily available in your local garden centre in seed if not plugs right now. Both are probably in your nearest deli — if you fancy a taste test before you pick which.

The wild varieties can be a little more peppery but are just as easy to cultivate as the cultivated varieties. Both are rich in alpha-lipoic acid (ALA), which is losing its potency in other garden greens due to selective breeding for shelf life or other commercial traits. In humans, ALA is involved in preventing oxidative stress, assisting enzymes that turn nutrients into energy and has a role in insulin sensitivity and neuro-regeneration. We only manage a small amount so a salad rich in it is a handy one to have at hand.

Salad rocket (Eruca vesicaria) can be sown direct to where you want it to grow or started in a seed tray this weekend and successionally sown over the next few months to keep you in ample supply. Sow singly at 6mm deep, with around 5cm spacing. You will eventually thin to 20-25cm, but those thinnings are good to think of as microgreens rather than discards, being nutritionally dense.

I have various self-seeded clumps about the garden that I rarely sow fresh any more. This practice favours my not-overly-sunny site. It might do the same for yours.

If you are starting today, then germination will have taken place before next week’s article. The seeds don’t need a specific heat, they will just come along within a week of sowing.

They like a fertile enough site but are not hungry feeders. I find a homemade (nettle and comfrey) liquid feed a few weeks in is enough.You don’t want to activate over-growth and have too sweet a leaf — this plant is grown as a spicy addition. It doesn’t suffer pests and diseases too readily, only if under stress from drought or unseasonable weather.

Slugs generally keep clear but may munch seedlings. Flea beetles can be an issue too but a garlic spray resolves both those culprits and also boosts some of the healing constituents within the foliage. More on that later.

Wild rocket (Diplotaxis Sylvetta or D. tenuifolia) is more noticeably serrated of leaf and often with a more biting flavour too. It can be sown just as cultivated varieties; to same depth and spacing. Both prefer a well-drained site but don’t like drought. Long gaps without watering can make the foliage bitter or bolt the plant to seed.

Both these annual plants will be harvestable within three-four weeks. They are not hardy, so horticultural fleece around.

September can extend garden life. Both are popular as salad leaves and often included in commercial ready-washed mixes you may pick up in your supermarket.

The younger leaves often have a sweet and nutty flavour, but as they mature, a piquancy develops. They are in the mustard family and their welcome pepper hit has long been admired by chefs and home cooks like myself.

Rockets also have a history as a spinach-like pot herb. I’m not convinced when it comes to using it this way as a regular staple (too thin for my tastes) but if there is a glut it can go in the odd lasagna with the actual spinach. I prefer the raw form as more of the beneficial compounds stay intact. Both types of rocket (and all their cultivars) are packed with folates and Vitamin C that are easily diminished by heat.

Both rocket types are particularly high in beta carotene for a “green” and like others in the brassica family, they contain indoles and glucosinolates; known cancer-fighting phytochemicals and beneficial in clearing the body of bacterial, and even viral, infections. Glucosinolates are really interesting, they prompt phase II enzymes into action; that’s our detoxifying enzymes that not only work on accumulated toxins within our body from other less clean foods and from environmental pollution but which are said to actively help remove carcinogenic substances from the body.

In laboratory settings, indoles and glucosinolates have been shown to stimulate self-destruction of cancer cells — it argues the case for eating foods that are not only clean (chemical-free) but are cleansing (remove chemicals and toxins from the system). It is not quite a natural chemo but it is another recruited regiment to the battle.

Seed packets often say “grow in a sunny opposition” but when growing at home as an edible, a great tip is to grow in partial shade or to use a shading device in summer to keep the plants cool and slower to go to seed. This maintains and maximises flavour. Rocket is an attractive plant when it does bloom — with creamy, white windmill flowers — and it is a source of food to pollinators.

Letting some plants go to flower and into seed will not only benefit the biodiversity in your garden but can result in some spontaneous self-seeders next year. Varieties you may want to try include ‘Apollo’, ‘Astra’, ‘Pronto’ ‘Runway’ and ‘Sky Rocket’, all fast-growing. Varieties to breed for a more fiery flavour include ‘Scorpion’, ‘Dragon’s Tongue’ and ‘Fireworks’. New cultivars arrive all the time but old or new, it really is a plant that I would recommend — for taste, for health for the sheer delight of growing.

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