Taste of summer
July is an excellent month in which to start sowing seed of many different salad leaves . . . and not just for the summer salad bowl
Leaves and edible flowers for the salad bowl. Photograph: Richard Johnston
The colourful leaves of Swiss chard make a lively addition to a salad. Photographs: Richard Johnston
I’ve been spending a lot of time lately dreaming about salads. Not just any old salad, but the perfect, homegrown leafy salad; the sort with just the right balance of sweetness, sourness, pepperiness, bitterness and saltiness, as well as a contrast of different textures, colours and aromas, so that not only does it taste good, but it also looks good, smells good, and feels good in the mouth.
At present the pickings from my garden include tasty rocket, crunchy pak choi, the tender, crumpled purple leaves of the butterhead lettuce “Marvel of Four Seasons” and the crispy, sweet semi-cos “Little Gem”, colourful baby Swiss chard leaves as well as chive flowers, a smattering of fiery marigold petals, and the tender growing tips of various herbs.
Not bad, but the truth is that it could be a whole lot better.
Luckily there’s still plenty of time left for experimentation, because July is an excellent month in which to start sowing seed of many different salad leaves, not just for the summer salad bowl but also for autumn and winter. Top of my list are a few more varieties of lettuce, including the fast-growing, heritage, loose-leaf “Black-Seeded Simpson”, and another known as “Freckles”, which is a semi-cos lettuce whose green leaves are brightly speckled with burgundy.
Beginning next week, I’ll be succession-sowing small amounts of seed of both of these (as well as the aforementioned “Marvel of Four Seasons” and “Little Gem”) roughly every fortnight, continuing until the end of August. This way, I’ll be guaranteed a steady supply of leaves, rather than a sudden glut. Come August, I’ll also start sowing seed of a few winter-hardy varieties, including “Lattughino”, “Fristina” and “Valdor”.
Lettuce aside, there is a host of other tasty salad leaves that can be succession-sown over the next couple of months. Rocket, with its mildly peppery leaves, has deservedly become a salad classic (direct sow from now until the end of August). Or try endive “Wallone”, a quick growing salad plant with wavy, succulent leaves similar to lettuce, but sharper-tasting (sow until end of September).
I also love red orache (sow until the end of July), a tall, decorative plant that can be treated as a cut-and-come again crop and whose gentle-flavoured leaves, if harvested when very young and tender, add spots of brilliant colour to the salad bowl.
The cold-hardy lamb’s lettuce (or corn salad as it’s also known) is another great salad staple, its mild-flavoured, spoon-shaped leaves acting as the perfect foil to stronger flavours. Direct-sow outdoors from August until late autumn and it will crop throughout the winter.
Come late July, you can also sow seed of claytonia, or winter purslane, a low-growing plant whose leaves are rich in vitamin C and can be harvested up until next spring, helping to stave off winter coughs and sniffles. Land cress is another excellent, fast-growing, cold-hardy, nutrient-rich salad crop (direct sow from now to September).
No modern salad bowl would be complete without some oriental leaves. For crunch, it’s hard to beat pak choi (succession-sow until end of August). For something fiery, try mibuna or mizuna (direct sow until end of August) or the often exotically colourful, decorative and fast-growing mustards (direct sow from July-September).
For some richly aromatic leaves, sow seed of coriander (direct sow until the end of July), chervil (sow from now until September) and basil (sow now, indoors, in a pot).
Finally, don’t forget edible flowers. For jewel-like colour, grow scented, ruby-red nasturtium, sky-blue starry borage and bright golden pot marigold (buy now as young plants). The vivid petals of dahlias are another edible delight, as are those of roses.
As stated above, some of these plants do best when directly sown into well-prepared, moist, weed-free soil. In this case, keep the soil well watered and remember that emerging seedlings will need protection against slugs and snails. Remember also that most of the oriental salad leaves are members of the brassica/cabbage family and are vulnerable to the same pests.
With other salad crops, it’s best to sow seed into seed trays filled with good-quality, damp seed compost, pricking the young seedlings out into modules to plant out later into the garden. Keep in mind that lettuce won’t germinate well at higher temperatures (the optimum germination temperature is 15-20 degrees); if it is too warm, the seed enters “thermal dormancy”.
To avoid this, keep seed trays outdoors, well-watered and ideally on a raised surface (eg, a garden table) where the emerging seedlings will have more protection from slugs and snails.
Salad crops sown for harvesting later in the year will be much more slow-growing and will benefit greatly from the protection of a glasshouse/polytunnel. If that’s not possible, then garden fleece or a cloche will do a lot to protect them from harsh frosts and cold winds.
The thing to remember about all of these salad crops is that they give such great bang for your buck. They ask for little in the way of garden space (many will grow just fine in a window box, pot or tub) or in the way of growing time. Sown at this time of year, some will be ready to harvest within as few as six weeks and most can be treated as cut-and-come-again crops.
There can be few other homegrown crops that shave so much off the weekly food bill.
For the relatively small investment of a few hours of your time and the cost of a dozen or so packets of seed, those expensive bags of limp, bruised, tired leaves from the local supermarket could very soon become a thing of the past.
Recommended seed suppliers include Brown Envelope Seeds (brownenvelopeseeds.com), Mr Middleton (mrmiddleton.com) Seedaholic (seedaholic.com), and the Organic Gardening Catalogue (organicacatalogue.com). Sligo-based Quick Crop will also deliver module-raised young salad plants countrywide.
Saturday 28th (3pm-5pm): Bray Rose Show at St Cronan’s Primary School, Vevay Rd, Bray, hosted by the Delgany & District Horticultural Society. Contact John Markham, 01-2874400
Saturday, July 5th-Sunday, July 6th: Galway Garden Festival, Claregalway Castle, speakers include Klaus Laitenberger, Oliver Schurmann, Michael Kelly, Duncan Stewart, Dr Evelyn Cusack, Dr Dermot O’ Flynn and Fionnuala Fallon, see galwaygardenfestival.com
Saturday, July 5th-Sunday, July 6th: Secret Gardens Festival, Baltimore, Co Cork, hosted by Glebe Gardens, see Baltimore.ie and glebegardens.com