Kitty Scully serves up home thoughts to make the most of your garden.
WITH June just around the corner, summer is nominally here and I am envisioning sun, fun and barbecues with big bowls of freshly picked, lush, leafy green and coloured salad leaves.
Pre-packed mixed salad leaves sold in supermarkets are expensive to buy and usually contain a cocktail of chemicals in the bag to boot but for the same price (around €2.80) a pack of mixed salad seeds can be purchased.
One packet has the potential to supply nine to ten times the quantity of leaves as one bought bag and it goes without saying ten times more flavour as well!
Salad growing is not hard work and is rewarded by the joy of picking bowls full of nutrient rich fresh tasty leaves exactly when needed, 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.
Salad leaves is a generic term for varieties of plants that taste great fresh in salads, ranging from lettuce to leaf amaranth. Most salad leaf mixes contain looseleaf type lettuces that do not form a compact head and are cultivated for their tender, delicate leaves that grow from a central stalk.
Most of these are ‘cut and come again’ (CCA) which means that leaves can be cut about 2.5cm from the ground and they will then resprout allowing up to four more cuts from the same plant. Popular leaf salads include red and green oak leaf lettuce, lettuce ‘Salad Bowl’ and ‘Lollo’ varieties.
The other most popular leaf salads are rocket and oriental greens such as mizuna, mibuna, pac choi and mustard leaves which are sure to add a spicy kick to any salad mix.
Some more unusual CCA salad leaf suspects include spinach, swiss chard, kale, beetroot and turnip leaves. Clearly it is possible and often preferred to blend your own seed mixes, trialing varied combinations to use in different salad recipes.
Generally I only sow rocket and oriental salad mixes in July, August and early spring as I find they run to seed quickly and their flavor becomes intensely spicy in the height of summer. At this time of year, oak leaf and salad bowl varieties work well.
It makes good culinary and garden sense to grow salubrious succulent salad leaves as they are the classic maximum return for minimum effort in record time crop. A garden is not even required to grow them as they will do equally well in pots, grow bags, window boxes and recycled containers.
All that is required is some soil or compost and re-using seed-sowing compost from last year is also an option as baby salad leaves are they are not heavy feeders.
That said an addition of garden compost or well-rotted manure to a pot will improve soil structure, increase the water holding capacity of the soil and thus ensure easier maintenance. CCA mixed salad seeds should be sown into a weed free seedbed either in shallow drills 10cm apart or by simply broadcasting the seeds on the soil surface.
If broadcasting, be careful not sow too thick with the recommended spacing being approximately 1.5cm between each seed.
Lettuce seeds need light to germinate so do not cover the seeds with compost and take note that many varieties fail to germinate when soil temperature is above 25C so avoid placing pots in a very warm polytunnel or conservatory if temperatures are up.
Once sown, ensure pot is adequately watered and kept in a well-lit spot and seeds should soon germinate. Within a few weeks, a harvestable crop of leaves is ready. It’s up to the individual what size they want to harvest leaves at — baby leaf to large.
If a new patch of seeds is sown every two weeks (successional sowing), a steady supply of fresh leaves all summer should replace the all so familiar salad glut and ensuing salad gap scenario.
With regular sowings of CCA mixes even the strongest cravings for fresh, nutritious salad greens will be indulged all summer long and it is for this very reason that salad leaves have almost completely taken over from growing lettuce heads.
That said, all loose leaf varieties if left uncut will grow into heads and can still supply a steady supply of leaves once outer leaves are picked regularly leaving the centre rosette to grow on as opposed to the CCA system.
This repeated plucking of leaves actually encourages plants to grow more as the plant is programmed to produce a certain volume of root and leaf before it feels ready to go to seed.
By continually picking outer leaves, the productivity of the lettuce plant is increased greatly and yet again providing maximum taste from minimum space.
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