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).