If you are thinking of having a go of growing some of your own food then salad leaves are a really good place to start for lots of different reasons. Liz from Whitefield writes about her experience of growing salad leaves in her garden. You can also read her plan to plant a winter salad garden here.
If you are thinking of having a go of growing some of your own food then salad leaves are a really good place to start for lots of different reasons. Firstly they are really easy to grow and you can do so without great expense
or the need for specialist equipment. Secondly even in a small space you can easily grow enough leaves to satisfy your needs throughout the year. Finally the reduced environmental impact is significant due to the low food miles (none!) and the fact that growing your own cuts out plastic waste almost entirely.
When and where do salad leaves like to grow?
Most salad leaves like a good sunny location, though they do benefit from some shade if the weather gets really hot. They like loose, well-draining soil that is kept moist but not soggy. They are reasonably greedy crops so if you
are planting them directly into the soil you will need to add plenty of compost a couple of weeks before planting. In our garden I prefer to plant lettuces in small troughs that we have made out of waste wood lined with the plastic from compost bags because it means I can move them around easily depending upon the weather. They would be equally happy growing in any well drained container – the most important thing is that it is big enough that it doesn’t keep drying out on hot days.
Here in the UK it is best to wait until mid spring before you start planting, as salad leaves do need warm soil to germinate. We generally plant our leaves as a cut and come again crop. This means that we harvest the young leaves when we need them, preventing plants from maturing and ensuring several harvests of small, tender, mild-flavoured leaves over a longer period of time. You can do this just planting lettuce seeds but if you are feeling adventurous you can mix up different seeds and plant them all together so that you get a wider variety to choose from. Leaves that work include: amaranth, basil, beetroot, chicory, coriander, chard, corn salad, endive, land cress, leaf celery, lettuce, mustards, parsley, purslane, radicchio, red kale, rocket, sorrel and spinach. Oriental leaves such as pak choi, mizuna and komatsuma can also be sown but are best left until after mid-summer as earlier crops tend to go to seed. You can create your own seed mix or buy a ready prepared one – with the latter generally being the cheaper option.
Cut and come again salads are great because they help you to avoid having gluts at a particular time, which are common when vegetables are grown and mature all at once. We tend to sow small batches of seed every two weeks from mid April until late August to give us a longer, steadier supply of leaves throughout the season. In our garden we also sow a range of leaves to take us through the winter months. Our favourites are chard, pak choi, mustard, mizuna and land cress which we start off in August and which then stand for us to come back to throughout the colder months. This is another time that it’s good to plant in containers so that you can move them to the warmest spot during the coldest months.
How to grow your salad leaves:
- Sow into containers of peat free compost or directly into soil in a sunny spot.
- Sow in rows or broadcast over the surface of a container. In garden soil rows are best so that you can spot any weeds that pop up!
- As the seeds are very small they need to be sown in very shallow drills, covered with a thin layer of soil.
- Watering the bottom of the drill before sowing will make sure that seeds are in close contact with moist soil, rather than watering the row afterwards which may wash your seeds away.
- As the leaves will be harvested early, you can sow the seeds closer together than if you were growing mature plants; aim for a finger’s width between seeds and 10-15cm (4-6in) between rows.
- Keep seedlings weed free and well-watered.
- When leaves are of an appetising size, use scissors to snip off a few from each plant at 2.5cm (1in) from the base. Avoid damaging the central growing point of the plant and allow the remaining leaves to grow on.
- Water regularly to help support the production of new leaves.
- Each sowing should give you three or four cuts before the plants are exhausted. When plants become tough, bitter or try to flower pull them out and add to your compost. Then you can add more compost and start the process again!