Growing unusual edibles: salads
by Tom Moggach
Nasturtiums, credit: Tom Moggach
There’s so much more to salad leaves than lettuce. A dazzling variety of crops, such as spicy mustards, crunchy purslanes, rainbow chard and nasturtium flowers, can all add something special to a summer salad.
What’s more, growing salads in the city makes perfect sense. They’re fast-growing, require little space, and are an ideal fresh crop as they rapidly lose nutrients once harvested.
Salad leaves couldn’t be easier to grow and once they’re ready to harvest, all you need to do is snip them straight into your salad bowl and tuck in.
Read on for tips on choosing varieties, hassle-free growing, and serving suggestions.
Aim to grow a mix of leaves which will offer a variety of colours, textures and flavours. As you’ll be using the young leaves, you can expect your first harvests four to six weeks after sowing.
Great for adding a spicy kick to salads, mustard leaves are best eaten small, as they get hotter as they grow.
There are dozens of varieties, with a whole range of different colours and leaf shapes to choose from, but my favourites include Green In Snow, Golden Streaks, Osaka Purple and the purple-fringed Dragon Tongue.
Sow from mid-summer to early autumn.
Rainbow Chard (or Bright Lights Chard)
A multi-hued mix of different varieties of chard, these leaves are excellent for adding a splash of colour to salads.
Sow from early spring to early autumn.
Winter purslane, also known as Claytonia, can actually be grown all year round. Its diamond-shaped leaves will add succulence and texture to any salad.
Summer purslane is a different plant but it’s just as delicious and worth a try. Sow from late spring to mid-summer.
My all-time favourite, nasturtiums, add a brilliantly peppery kick to salads. The flavour can be quite powerful though, so they’re best used in moderation. Both the leaves and flowers are edible and there are many varieties, including Tip Top Mahogany and Empress of India, to choose from. Nasturtiums thrive on poor soils so don’t be tempted to feed and pamper them.
Sow from mid-spring to early summer.
Lettuces with Character
Look out for lettuces with unusual colours and shapes, such as the varieties Freckles, Grenoble Red, Bronze Arrowhead, Reine de Glace and Marvel Of Four Seasons.
Lettuces can be sown from early spring to early autumn. It’s worth noting, however, that lettuce seed can germinate erratically in hot weather, so in these conditions, it’s best to sow in the shade.
Herbs are essential for adding zip to a salad. Try sowing whole seed trays of chervil, dill, coriander and different basils. Harvest leaves young and use them in abundance.
For something even more unusual, look out for orache and red-ribbed dandelion. Beetroot, radish and carrot leaves are also edible and are at their best when young and tender. Some seed suppliers sell varieties specifically bred for leaf production, such as Bull’s Blood (beetroot) and Saisai (radish).
Most salad leaves are ‘cut-and-come-again’, meaning they can be harvested more than once, so they’re great value in a small space.
In general, salad leaves grown during the summer can cope with a touch of shade. So it’s fine to reserve your sunniest spots for fruiting crops such as tomatoes or courgettes.
Salad crops’ root systems are shallow and typically only require a maximum soil depth of around 10cm. Therefore, water gently and regularly for succulent leaves.
You can either start seeds off in modules (cell trays with individual slots for each plant) or seed trays and then plant out at seedling stage, or sow direct into the final container or the open ground.
In containers, the challenge is to grow a decent quantity. A small window box of leaves, for example, won’t last long. So set up a simple system to provide you with a steady supply.
On my small roof, I recycle those blue plastic vegetable trays, thrown out by local food shops. Line with plastic or weed suppressing fabric, punch holes for drainage, and fill with any compost on hand – homemade, municipal or from the garden centre.
Sow a whole tray at a time with, for example, a mix of mustards or lettuces, or a herb such as basil. Slide the tray into a plastic bag while the seeds germinate (to preserve moisture and save on watering), then grow on.
For a steady supply, sow every few weeks. I keep my plants in the same trays throughout, saving the bother of planting them out.
In the garden, ideally your soil should contain decent amounts of organic matter. Try growing salads in gaps between other crops, or as an edging for beds.
The Perfect Salad
The dream salad is a balance of textures, colours and flavours.
If your leaves are a little floppy, they will perk up after an hour-long soak in a sink of fresh, cold water. Then, dry your leaves thoroughly, ideally with a salad spinner.
Not all leaves respond well to strong dressings. Don’t be afraid to serve leaves unadorned or offer the dressing separately to give the option.
For a decent salad dressing, be generous with the salt and let the dressing stand for ten minutes or so before serving, to allow flavours to mingle.
Lemon vinaigrettes are lovely at this time of year – just replace vinegar with a good squeeze of lemon juice, and add a touch of Dijon mustard.
Alternatively, try this unusual but summery dressing recipe: whisk together equal quantities of orange juice and olive oil, then add a dollop of white miso paste (available in health food shops), and whisk again to thicken.
Tom Moggach is a founder of City Leaf, which provides expert food growing training to groups and schools, www.cityleaf.co.uk