Salad leaves – not just for rabbits

In the last couple of years I’ve started to grow my own vegetables in containers. Some of my efforts have been more successful than others – for example, the secret of growing carrots has so far eluded me and most of my courgettes/zucchini succumb to something called blossom end rot, where they reach a certain size and then gradually shrivel back down to nothing. Most frustrating! However, there is one type of veg that I can heartily recommend growing if you’ve got limited space at your disposal, and if you have to use containers rather than conventional beds: lettuce/salad leaf crops. They’re brilliant for cheap, tasty and healthy meals – for example, today my lunch consisted of half a tin of tuna mixed with mayonnaise (our cats got the other half of the tin), a bit of cooked pasta, and last but not least, a salad consisting of mixed baby lettuce leaves, rocket, mustard, baby spinach and chard, spring onions, chives, Welsh onions and pea shoots!
The mixed salad I ate has a name: “mesclun”, a name that originates from the Provence region of France and traditionally refers to a mixture of chervil (a herb), rocket, leafy lettuces and endive but nowadays can be used to refer to any leafy salad mixture.
Before discussing some of the individual types of salad plants that can go into your “mesclun”, it’s worth mentioning a few things about container growing. The main thing is that you can ignore the instructions on the seed packet to “plant thinly in rows”. The container of mixed loose leaf lettuce shown in the top right hand side of the main pic is about a metre across, and I simply sprinkled the entire contents of a seed packet in there. If it turns out that you’ve planted too thickly, you can always thin the seedlings out when they’re about an inch high, and eat the thinnings once you’ve cut off the roots! The second thing about container growing is that you need to do plenty of watering – once a day without fail, unless it rains. The best time is in the evening after the heat of the sun has gone, or failing that, early in the morning. Don’t water in the middle of the day, because the sun will cause leaf burn as the water evaporates off the leaf’s surface (actually, this applies to watering all plants, not just salad leaves).
What do I use as compost?
You can buy bags of compost at any garden centre and also occasionally in supermarkets/discount stores. I personally like to make my own compost – if you’ve got a suitable space in your garden for a compost bin, and you’re not too squeamish about worms, I recommend going for it. (The only slight drawback to home-made compost is that you get more weeds.) My compost bin is a “dalek” shaped one, with a lid and a small hatch at the bottom. I’ve situated it on a raised bed, next to a small area where I’ve dug a hole. Every few weeks (except in the dead of winter, when the compost doesn’t rot down very fast), I lift the entire compost bin and put it to one side, while I sift through the contents. The stuff that’s nearly completely rotted down goes into the hole, which is then covered with strips of carpet and weighted down with a few heavy objects to stop it from being used as a cats’ litter tray. I then put the compost bin back in situ and chuck everything else back into it, newest stuff first. In a couple of weeks, the compost in the hole is ready for use.
Lettuce doesn’t mind cool growing conditions (the optimum is 60-65 deg. F), and it will germinate at temperatures not far above freezing. So it’s ideal for planting in spring or late summer, as long as you allow enough time before the first frosts. In fact, it doesn’t do so well in the height of summer, as it tends to bolt and go bitter. If you’re growing in containers, it makes sense from a space point of view to grow non-heading loose leaf lettuce types which are “cut and come again”, rather than “heading” types of lettuce. As the name suggests, non-heading, loose leaf lettuces can be picked a leaf at a time, thus ensuring a continuous supply and allowing you to pick only as much as you need in one sitting, whereas once
Loose leaf lettuce that’s started to bolt
you’ve picked a head of lettuce, that’s it – it’s got to be eaten within a day or so. Non-heading lettuces generally fall into two categories: oakleaf types, and lollo types (e.g. lollo rosso or lollo bondi), which have frilly leaves. Keep an eye out for packets of seeds featuring a mixture of oakleaf and lollo types of lettuce – I’ve found that not only are these the easiest to grow, but they provide a lovely mixture of textures in your salad bowl and even look good while growing in your container! The packet I used in the container I mentioned earlier contained seeds of the following lettuce varieties: Catalogna, Cocarde, Lollo Rosso, Grand Rapids, Rossa di Trento and Red Bowl.
Sometimes known as arugula or rucola, rocket (Eruca sativa) has a similar leaf shape to oakleaf lettuce but rather than having a plain flavour like oakleaf lettuce, it’s peppery hot! I personally love the flavour of rocket – it’s brilliant for pepping up salads but is also fantastic when ground up with basil, olive oil, basil, garlic, Parmesan cheese and pine nuts to make pesto. Rocket originates from the Mediterranean area but can be grown in any temperate climate. You can grow rocket in the same “cut ‘n’ come again” way as oak leaf/lollo lettuce. Types of seed to look out for are wild rocket and mixed rocket leaves (personally I’ve had more luck with the latter when growing in containers).
Spinach and chard
I will discuss these together because they have a very similar flavour – sort of like a more subtle version of beetroot. Again, you can grow both spinach and chard in a cut & come again fashion. It actually likes a fairly cool climate – I planted some chard late last summer and it hung on grimly through a winter that was colder than normal for my part of the world (i.e. we had snow and a few nights where the temperature dropped well below freezing). If you want to grow spinach in containers for salads, the best types of seeds to look for are “baby spinach” varieties – these are varieties where the leaves never get really big.
Chard plus publicity-hungry cat
Chard tastes very similar to spinach but is more interesting to look at, because the stems are often bright yellow or pinky-red. If you buy rainbow chard seeds, you can expect a mixture of both colours – looks lovely in a salad. Both spinach and chard are also wonderful in stir fries.
Chives, Welsh onions and spring onions
If you like the taste of onion/garlic, then you should definitely try and grow these; they’re incredibly low maintenance and they look good too. Both chives and Welsh onion are perennials, which means that they die back in the winter but come March/April, they start to grow tender green shoots and within a month, are well underway again. Chives have gorgeous lilac-coloured flowers which are actually edible; both flowers and leaves taste like a milder version of spring onion. The leaves of Welsh onions are flat rather than tubular (as in the case of chives and spring onions), and they have a very mild garlic flavour.
(Side note: it’s very easy and cheap to grow your own garlic from shop-bought cloves of garlic. In October/November, plant single cloves in long narrow containers about six inches apart – you will have garlic bulbs ready to harvest the following July.) Spring onions can be planted thickly in containers in much the same way as lettuce, starting in spring – thin them out as they become fatter and chunkier, and eat the thinnings. If you like spring onions as much as I do, it’s worth planting several crops in one year, each about six-eight weeks apart.
Pea shoots
I didn’t actually realise you could eat pea shoots until a couple of years ago, and how yummy they are! It’s a great idea to grow peas for their shoots if you’ve got limited space, because you need a lot of plants to get a decent crop of actual peas, whereas you can get a nice little crop of pea shoots from a container the size of a bucket. Not to mention that it’s a lot easier to grow pea shoots! Until they’re about six inches high, pea shoots are lovely and tender, with a delicate pea taste and a fantastic texture that marries up well with all that lettuce and chives, spring onion etc.
Oriental salad leaves
I’ve only just begun to skim the surface of what’s available when it comes to Oriental salads, but I have successfully grown a variety of Chinese mustard called “Green in Snow”, which as its name suggests, is frost hardy and in Britain, can be planted any time from early spring to early autumn (you need to give it some shade in summer though). Another one – which is getting very popular – is mizuna. I love mizuna but so do the snails in my garden, as I found to my cost when I tried growing it for the first time this year. I will try growing it again, but this time it’s going in our front garden where the mollusc population is much lower! Other Oriental salads include mibuna, giant red mustard, mustard spinach, serifon, sessantina, tat soi and the more well-known pak choi. Again, snails LOVE pak choi so do bear that in mind!
© Empress Felicity June 2010