In recent years we have become more adventurous with our salads, venturing beyond the traditional lettuce and tomato.
There is a wide array of salad leaves to be had, which will add both colour and flavour. These are one of the easiest of crops for the beginner gardener. And with a bag of mixed salad leaves costing around £1.50, there is every reason to grow your own.
Having said that, first choice would still be lettuce, even within this group, there is a wide choice. At the new entrance to the Walled Kitchen Garden at Clumber, we’ve just planted some large wooden planters with lavender, rosemary and a selection of lettuces.
The red cos leaved variety ‘Red Cos’ would not look out of place in the flower garden, producing deep, beetroot- red leaves. Pick of the reds would also be ‘Lollo Rossa’ (crinkled pale green leaves with a crimson edge) and, one I’ve mentioned in this column before, the Italian heirloom variety ‘Drunken Woman’, similarly green with pink edges.
Growing lettuces is easy. They can be sown now and the loose leaf varieties will be ready to pick in about seven or eight weeks. Sow in rows 12”/30cm apart in drills about 0.5ins/12mm deep. The only problem you may encounter is with the crisphead or iceberg varieties, whose seed is sometimes reluctant to germinate in very hot summer weather.
For something different in salads, try rocket, mustard, leaf beet or Oriental greens such as mizuna.
Mizuna is easy and fast growing. It has attractive deeply cut leaves; baby leaves can be used in salads, larger ones are good in stir-fry dishes. Flavour is mildly spicy. Sowing can be made until the end of August; sow every three weeks for a regular supply of leaves; pick a few leaves off each plant when they are 4”/10cm in length; plants will send up fresh leaves, enough for about four harvests.
Rocket will give a sharper, peppery flavour to salads. There are different varieties, some hotter than others; the wild rocket tends to be more pungent than cultivated forms. ‘Esme’ is recommended for summer sowings, as it is reputed to be slow to go to seed.
Mustard will also bring heat to salads. As with lettuces, there are some very attractive red leaved forms, such as ‘Oriental Ruby Streak’ and ‘Red Frills’ which have deeply cut leaves. Generally, the larger you allow the leaf to grow, the hotter it will become. As with the mizuna, sowing can continue until late August
Final choice would be a couple of beets. We grow leaf beet ‘Flamingo Pink’, which has brilliant bright pink stems and bright green leaves. Sow by the end of July for baby salad leaves. This is a dual purpose crop, as older leaves can be steamed as a spinach-like leaf. Similarly the beetroot ‘Bull’s Blood’ can be put to a couple of uses – its deep red young leaves are excellent in salads, if left to grow, roots form the conventional globe shaped beetroots, these are best harvested when young and tender.
n Visiting other gardens is a great way to get inspiration and ideas for your own plots. Many private gardens, not normally open to visitors, open under the National Gardens Scheme. Details on the NGS website, www.ngs.org.uk