Cut and come again...

Salad days are here at last and Kitty Scully says organic leaves are easier and cheaper to grow from scratch.

Dancing and fluttering in the breeze — a host of golden dandelions.

Salad leaves are the ultimate, ‘maximum return for minimum effort’ crop and will grow anywhere — even window boxes.

I’m envisioning sun, fun and barbeques this summer with big bowls of fresh, lush, leafy green and coloured salads

If you were only to grow one crop this year, I’d encourage you to try salads as they are the classic ‘maximum return for minimum effort in record time’ crop. They grow well in pots, grow bags, window boxes and even, old baths. If you choose the right variety, you can harvest leaves and they will re-grow, giving at least four harvests from one sowing — how cool is that? This is what is meant by CCA salads —cut-and-come again.

Pre-packed mixed salad leaves in the supermarket are extremely expensive and usually contain a cocktail of chemicals in the bag. For the same price (around €2.50) you can buy a pack of mixed salad or rocket seeds from which you will get nine to 10 times the quantity almost effortlessly and you can experience the joy of picking as much nutrient-rich fresh tasty leaves as you need, ensuring minimum waste and maximum taste. Seed merchants have caught onto the idea too, so now you can buy many different mixes of leaves in one pack, varying in degrees of spicy-ness as well as texture, shape and colour. You could even mix up your own and throw in some spinach, beetroot and white turnip seeds as the baby leaves of these are CCA and delicious when eaten as salad.

To sow your salubrious salads, all you need is some soil or compost and you could even reuse seed-sowing compost from the previous year, perfect for growing baby salad leaves (they don’t need a lot of nutrients). Once you sow your seeds in shallow drills or even just broadcast them, keep them adequately watered and in a well-lit spot and your seeds should soon germinate. Within a few weeks, a crop of leaves is ready. It’s up to you what size you want to harvest them at — baby leaf to large. If you sow a few seeds every two weeks (successional sowing), you should have a supply all summer and avoid one huge glut of greens.

SOWING & THINNING: Continue to sow peas, mangetout, broadbeans, carrots, parsnips, radishes, swedes, turnips, beetroot, runner beans, perpetual spinach and chard directly into the ground if conditions are suitable. There is still time to sow seeds of courgettes, runner beans, French beans, squashes and pumpkins in individual pots.

Thin out seedlings of direct-sown vegetables as necessary and make further sowings if you desire. Thinning is literally pulling out seedlings that are very close together to space out your plants and avoid overcrowding. This is essential as it gives your plants room to grow resulting in bigger vegetables. It also helps keep away pests and diseases as they breed and spread in confined spaces. Seedling competition will set back your crop and delay harvest.

Some people prefer to thin partially as a hedge against possible later seedling losses. Others like their seedlings to grow to a stage where it is possible to eat the thinnings. The spacing required varies dramatically from crop to crop, and sometimes even with the variety you’ve selected, so always check the seed packet for details.

After thinning, water the row thoroughly so that the soil resettles and the young vegetable plants will be less likely to suffer dryness at the roots. Don’t leave your thinning’s thrown on the ground, especially carrots, as the scent will attract the dreaded carrot root fly. More about the carrot root fly next week.

TRANSPLANTING: If the ground and weather is right, harden off and plant out transplants that are ready. Continue to prick out and pot on any young veg plants that you sowed earlier. Leeks, salads, spinach, calabrese, chard, scallions, brussel sprouts, celery, celeriac should be all moving into the ground outside. Always water well after moving a young plant to it’s new home.

CROP MAINTENANCE: If your peas are planted and thriving they will need support, presuming they are not a dwarf variety. Certain varieties of peas may get very tall, growing to nearly 7 feet. A support system should ideally be in place before peas are planted and certainly before the sign of the first tendrils. If your plants are not supported they will flop over, yields will drop and your precious peas will be destined for the muddy ground and the mouths of slugs.

Remember that peas climb, they don’t twine. A trellis effect works well as opposed to individual bamboo canes. The traditional method is to use pea sticks, which are twiggy branches of appropriate height pushed into the ground beside the rows. Pea sticks are my personal favourite as they are a quick, and effective support system. Of course you can use netting, or even bamboo sticks with string tied around them or chicken wire nailed to posts. Whatever you run with, make sure the support is strong as mature crops can become weighty and top heavy.


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