Grow Your Own Salad Leaves!

It’s that glorious time of year when everything is bursting with life outside. The plants are covered in swelling buds, there are beautiful fresh new leaves on the trees and, at long last, the sun is warmer!

This is the perfect time of year to sow salad crops as they will germinate very quickly.

If you’ve never grown your own salads before, then read on!

My favourite salad leaves are Lollo Rossa lettuces, which are expensive to buy in the shops (in fact I didn’t see any last year besides pre-packed in a bag of washed salad leaves). Lollo Rossa doesn’t produce a “heart” so the individual leaves can be picked as a “cut and come again” salad. The leaves are a beautiful dark purple colour.

Salad Bowl lettuces are bright green with frilled leaves which taste so good. Again, individual leaves can be picked. They are very easy to grow and do so very quickly!

Wild Rocket adds a little pungent flavour to green salads. It’s delicious on pizzas too.

Little Gem lettuces which take up hardly any space and are so sweet and crunchy when home grown.

Lambs lettuce – delicate sweet leaves which compliment any salad (but beware, slugs simply love them).

Mustard leaves add a little spice and take up hardly any room.Lolla Rossa

Spinach – the baby leaves are delicious eaten raw in salads.

All the seeds above can be bought in packets from garden centres but if you don’t feel like sowing the seeds yourself, garden centres and mail order companies can supply trays of small seedlings.

Or to really cheat – you can buy packs of “living salad” from the supermarket for £1. I have grown these in in pots very successfully and the lettuces will grow rapidly and last for weeks! Last year I bought 2 trays of living salad, one in May and one in July and the leaves lasted all summer – not bad for £2 especially as I enjoy a salad every day! Only pick the outside leaves then the plant will grow new ones. Before buying the living salads, inspect them and make sure they are not wilting and find a tray with the most varieties in. The more varieties, the less likely you are to become bored with the same leaves in your salad all season!

Sowing in a veggie patch

If you have a vegetable patch or an allotment, the seeds can be sown outside from early May. Make sure that the soil is free of weeds and rake well to get rid of stones. To ensure straight rows, use a bamboo cane (cut to the length of the row) and press gently into the soil to make a shallow seed drill. Water, then sow the seeds very thinly along the row and cover with a little soil. Label the row.

Keep the row moist at all times by watering gently and within a few days the small seedlings should appear. If too many seeds were sown, thin out some of the seedlings to allow space for the rest of the crop to grow (see instructions on the seed packet). Most lettuces require 9”/23cm between plants.

Sow more seeds every three weeks for a continuous supply over the summer and early autumn, allowing about 12”/30cm between rows.

Sowing in containers

Salad crops will grow perfectly well in containers. I sow the seeds indoors in a seed tray. Any plastic tray can be used providing it’s about 1”/2.5cm deep and large enough to accommodate the seedlings. Make a few small holes in the base for drainage and stand on an old tray to stop the moisture from damaging your worktops.Living Salad

Fill the seed tray almost to the top with compost. Water the compost so that it is evenly moist all over. Sow the seeds very thinly then cover with a little more compost. Label the tray.

Water carefully whenever the soil feels a little dry. The seedlings should germinate very quickly indoors.

When the plants have grown and are large enough to handle without damaging their stems, accustom them to the outdoors first by placing the tray outside in a sheltered, partly shaded position during the day. Bring them back inside overnight. Continue to do this for about two weeks until the plants are used to the temperature outside.

When the salads are ready to plant outside, almost fill a large pot, trough, window box or other container (with drainage holes in the base) with compost. Gently lift the plants out of the seed tray, one at a time, and replant in the large container making sure that the compost is up to the same level on the plant as it was in its original seed tray. Water carefully and place outside in a sheltered position.

Feeding

I don’t bother to feed salad crops if they are grown in the open ground as I make sure that enough compost is dug into the soil in the autumn, however, pot raised plants do benefit from a liquid feed once a week. I grow my vegetables organically so I use an organic liquid seaweed plant food. Only a very small amount of feed is needed so a bottle of seaweed feed lasts me all year! A tub of pelleted chicken manure (from the garden centre) also seems to work well.

Harvesting

Pick individual leaves from the outside of the plants, leaving enough of the original plant for it to recover and grow again. I pick the leaves just before I need them so that the nutrient level is at its highest. Rinse the leaves well to get rid of soil and bugs then dry carefully. I use a salad spinner, but if you don’t have one, place the leaves in the centre of a clean tea towel, pull the ends up to form a “bag” then go outside and swing the package round and round over your head until all the water has been expelled – this works a treat and is a bit of a mini work out before supper!

Once the salad leaves are dry, place in a bowl, drizzle with some oilve oil, add some fresh lemon or lime juice (or balsamic vinegar), toss gently and serve.

If you have never grown salad before, do have a go as it’s very rewarding and the leaves have so much more flavour when freshly picked!

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