Salad is one of the easiest groups of plants to grow and one of the most rewarding. When I first became interested in growing my own food, lettuce was how I started. A few seeds sprinkled on good compost in a pot, kept watered in summer will rarely fail to produce plenty of leaves. In fact, I would still recommend it as the ideal first crop for beginners as it will always surpass what you can buy in a supermarket. However, lettuce sown in Summer is just part of the story – what about a wider variety of salad tastes, extending the season through the year and trying some of the more exotic salad vegetables such as Amaranth and Komatsuna?
I always like to have a new garden project for the year and this year I have resolved to concentrate on salad with a particular emphasis on:
- Growing a wider variety: Not content with just the standard lettuce types I am going to try even more unusual leaves – new varieties of chicories, radicchio, pak choi and komatsuna.
- Keeping a continuous supply: It is all too easy to forget to sow the next batch of radishes while harvesting plenty. This year I plan to stay ahead of the game!
- Extending the season: I want to produce early salad leaves in Spring and late-standing plants that can be harvested through winter.
I have had some success with these goals this year – I still have some container-grown mizuna and lettuce which is withstanding the light frosts we have had quite well. However, the quanities and varieties leave a lot to be desired, providing more of a garnish to bland purchased lettuce than a whole bowlful. So I decided I needed to develop a ‘master salad plan’ for the year...
It is always useful to get some inspiration from an established expert in the field and I was delighted to receive a book that does just that for Christmas this year. Charles Dowding is a well-known organic grower here in the UK and currently crops an acre and a half commercially, selling large amounts of fresh organic salad. His recently published book ‘Salad Leaves for All Seasons’ is a treasure-trove of advice on every aspect of growing great salad.
Several things stand out about his methods:
- A huge variety of different salad plants are possible: From his favourite types of lettuce through to herbs and flowers that can be added, there are a wealth of options to select from.
- He emphasises the need to grow completely different plants at different times of year. I have often found that summer-sown rocket (arugula) does badly and is filled with holes – he confirms that flea beetle is the main culprit and gives alternatives for that season. Lettuces do well in Spring, oriental greens overwinter well etc. It is important to vary the crops to fit the seasons and work with nature, not against it.
- A lot of specific growing advice is given: I was particularly pleased to find that he recommends module sowing of lettuce to give reliable germination, beat slug attacks and keep a continuous supply from a small area. I have had a lot of success with raising lettuce in this way but many books completely ignore it stating that it should always be directly sown into the ground.
- He uses surface-composting of beds, similar to a no-dig approach: This method gives a highly productive area (especially with a succession of module-raised plants) which is gradually cropped, a few leaves at a time, over a long season.
- Each topic is well cross-referenced: There are tables of when to sow each leaf, both outdoors and under cover. Separate sections for each group of plant complement the seasonal chapters on what to sow and harvest month by month.
- The voice of experience: From two 8’ x 4’ (1.2 x 2.4m) raised beds he shows how a continuous supply of salad leaves from April to December can be grown, giving actual harvested amounts from his own experiments which total 150lb (70kg) over the year. That’s equivalent to 470 salad bags from the supermarket for minimal cost!
For a great introduction to the methods he uses, take a look at this YouTube video which features Charles showing us the type of salad beds and methods he recommends. Spend a few minutes viewing this and I can almost guarantee you will feel inspired to do more with salad this year. He also has his own website which includes many useful resources such as a calendar of when to sow and pick salad.
Will I be able to harvest a year round supply? I am certainly going to try and have already marked out a new bed to form the new salad factory. I would love to think that this year I will be able to harvest right through the seasons but even if I don’t manage that there will certainly be more variety in the salad bowl. For me, there is plenty of pleasure in planning it and I am thoroughly enjoying the vision of my new year’s salad resolution! If you have advice on what salad tips have worked well for you then please do add a comment below.