Louise Curley

11 Mar 2024 12:11

Six Salad Leaves to Sow in Spring

The start of March, for me, is the time when I start sowing a range of different salad leaves. These are one of the easiest edibles you can grow and you don’t need a lot of space – they’re just as happy growing in containers or grow bags as they are in a patch of soil. It’s also possible to be genuinely self-sufficient in lettuce throughout the summer, which is not the case with lots of other edibles where in order to achieve that a significant amount of time and space is needed. But best of all, freshly picked leaves taste far better than the limp salad in plastic bags that’s available at the supermarket, and it’s much cheaper to grow your own.  

A Mix of Leaves

Salad leaves for me means any leaves that I use uncooked, although some, such as spinach, are dual-purpose and can also be cooked. Salad leaves include hearting lettuces that form a tight cluster of leaves – these are divided into butterhead, cos and crisphead types. Then there are the loose-leaf lettuces that form a rosette of leaves, such as the oak-leaf varieties. Hearting lettuces tend to be picked whole and take a while to mature before there are ready to harvest, whereas the leaves of loose-leaf lettuces can be picked individually and they grow more quickly – you can be picking leaves in 6–8 weeks from sowing.

Colourful Salads

When I was growing up in the eighties it used to be that a salad consisted of a few leaves of just one type of lettuce, and it was nearly always the crispy but bland ‘Iceberg’. Fortunately the idea took hold that salads can be much more interesting than that and a whole host of other leaves can be grown to include in a salad, whether that’s the young leaves of spinach or chard, pea shoots, oriental greens such as mizuna and mibuna, corn salad (also known as lamb’s lettuce) or endives, which are particularly popular in Italy. You could add in leafy herbs such as coriander and basil and the edible flower petals of chives or calendula.

Salad Sowing

In early March I try not to get too carried away, as the days shift from spring sunshine to snow showers; now is the time to stick to salad varieties that are happy in cooler temperatures. At this time of year the soil is too cold and wet to be conducive to seeds germinating, so I sow indoors instead. I’ve also found this is the best way to tackle the problem of slugs which will hoover up young salad seedlings as if they’re a gourmet banquet! If slugs are a particular problem in your garden or there’s a prolonged period of wet weather when you want to sow I’d recommend sowing salad seeds in pots or modules first, whatever time of year it is. I often sow into seed trays and then prick out the individual plants, potting these on into individual pots, but this year I’m experimenting sowing into coir pellets instead. Hopefully this will save on time and will also cut out some of the waste I generate from using compost that comes in plastic bags.

This March I’ll be sowing:

‘Marvel of Four Seasons’: this butterhead lettuce has row upon row of ruffled maroon and green leaves. Prized, as the name suggests, for its ability to grow throughout the year. Pick whole or the outer leaves.

Mizuna: this Japanese leafy green is so easy and quick to grow from seed, you’ll be picking it in no time. As the leaves get bigger their mustardy pepperiness intensifies.

Rocket: I love the leaves of this plant for their peppery kick but sometimes they can be a bit too much, so this year I’m trying a cultivated version which is said to have a milder flavour.

‘Red Solix’: this is a new variety to me, with deep beetroot red leaves. It’s an oakleaf lettuce, so you can pick individual leaves as when you want them.

Little Gem ‘Maureen’: I like to have a mix of different types of leaves so that a salad has different textures. This cos type lettuce provides a bit of crispy crunchiness among the softer leaves such as rocket.

Pea shoots: perhaps one of the simplest leaves to grow. Fill a shallow seed tray with compost then sow the peas really close together. Push them into the compost so that they’re buried, then water. You should be able to pick the shoots in 3–4 weeks.