If someone new to gardening asks me what edibles they should grow I always say, “Start with salad leaves”. Not only are they one of the easiest crops to grow and look after, they’re inexpensive – a packet of seeds will keep you supplied all summer long – and you don’t need much space to grow them. They’re just as happy growing in containers on a balcony as they are in soil in a dedicated kitchen garden or allotment. Freshly picked leaves are far superior to anything you can buy at the supermarket, and as we’re all trying to reduce our use of plastic it’s much better for the planet to be able to pop outside and harvest your own lettuce rather than buying it in plastic bags. Growing your own also means there are a huge range of different leaves and crispy lettuces to try. If you think salads are boring you just need to widen your choice of ingredients.
A bit of crunch
I like to have at least one lettuce that has crispy, crunchy leaves, particularly if I’m using them in sandwiches. My own favourites include cos-type lettuces which form a dense cluster of leaves. You can harvest the whole plant, but I prefer to pick off the outer leaves as and when I need them, which makes the plant last longer.
Varieties to try: ‘Lobjoits’, ‘Saladin’, ‘Batavia’, ‘Black Seeded Simpson’
Texture and Colour
If I’m making a bowl of salad I like to use a mix of at least four different types of salad leaf. I’ll include some of the crispy ones mentioned above along with softer, cut-and-come-again varieties. For a salad to look visually appealing it’s important add some colour. Not all salad leaves are green, some are tinged bronze, others are deep purple or red and there are some with green leaves mottled with maroon.
Varieties to try: ‘Forellenschluss’, ‘Marvel of Four Seasons’, ‘Red Salad Bowl’, ‘Cocarde’
Most salad leaves have a subtle taste so to pep up the flavour add in pickings of rocket or oriental mustards which both have a peppery kick. Pea shoots are simply the tips of pea plants that can be removed and used as a garnish. They’re super fast-growing – you can be harvesting leaves in three weeks – and can be easily grown in shallow seed trays on a sunny windowsill where you can harvest from the small plants several times if you leave the stem of the plant in place and just pinch out the growing tips.
For a lemony astringency try sorrel – the blood-veined variety looks especially attractive – and for a bitter note include chicory.
Most edible flowers don’t have much flavour but there are a couple that I like to use not only because they look pretty but also because they taste great. The trumpet-shaped flowers of nasturtiums come in a great range of colours from deepest ruby red to apricot, vibrant orange to delicate creamy white. They have a mild peppery taste, as do the leaves which can also be used in salads.
Both the pink flowers of chives and the white star-shaped blooms of garlic chives, also known as Chinese chives, can be eaten, imparting a mild oniony flavour. Simply scatter over the salad before serving.
Om Louise Curley
Louise is a horticulturalist, garden writer and author of the award-winning book The Cut Flower Patch. She’s passionate about the power of plants to make us feel happy and is an advocate for organic gardening and encouraging wildlife into gardens.Get to know Louise Curley
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