Top crops for containers part 2: salad leaf mixes for every season
by Mark Ridsdill Smith
Mix of Sarah Raven’s Summer Salad Leaf Mix & Thompson and Morgan’s Niche Mixed credit: Mark Ridsdill Smith
Salads are amongst the most productive and worthwhile crops for growing in small spaces. They don’t need big containers, will thrive in shadier spots and grow quickly and easily. Most are ready to eat just six to eight weeks after sowing.
When choosing which salads to grow, I look for ones that will provide a variety of different tastes, textures and leaf shapes and that I can’t easily find in the shops. I also pick plants that will look colourful and attractive while they are growing.
This may seem like a tall order but you can achieve all of these things with just a few carefully selected packs of mixed salad leaves. I’ve recommend five mixes and if you grow them all, you will have more than 20 different leaves. When you harvest, you can have a lot of fun experimenting with different combinations. Every salad you eat will be slightly different and bursting with flavour!
Oriental salad leaves such as mizuna, mustard ‘Red Giant’, mustard ‘Red Frills’ and tatsoi are packed with taste and although they may sound exotic, they’re easy to grow all year round in the UK. They are best sown in late February / March for an early summer crop, or in August / September for a supply of leaves throughout the autumn and winter.
Each sowing will provide a steady supply of leaves over several weeks – harvest by picking a few outer leaves from each plant when you need them. After a few weeks of harvesting the leaves may start to get tough and bitter, particularly in summer. The trick is to keep sowing so that you have young plants ready to take their place.
Thompson & Morgan’s Niche Mixed selection is an easy way to discover some of the more unusual and interesting salad crops. It includes the extremely versatile leaf radish. This plant has pretty leaves (green with a purple stem) which taste like a punchier version of rocket and are best picked young and tender. Also in this mix are kale ‘Red Russian’ (tasty with ornamental leaves), salad burnet (pretty leaves with a cucumber flavour– pick them young before they get tough), golden purslane (a succulent leaf that adds texture to your salads) and red amaranth (a bright red leaf that tastes a little like baby spinach).
Sow from March to July and harvest in the same way as the oriental leaf mixes. The salad burnet is a perennial and can be moved into a separate pot, where it will be happy for another year or two.
The Summer Salad Leaf Mix from Sarah Raven balances the full-flavoured leaves of sorrel ‘de Belleville’, wild rocket and mustard ‘Red Lion’ with the milder taste of lettuces such as ‘Little Gem’ and ‘Green Batavian’. There’s a nice range of colours (including a gorgeous red cos lettuce) and leaf shapes (I like the pretty fronds of the edible carrot leaf).
Sow from May to July and harvest in the same way as the oriental mixes. Bear in mind that the sorrel is a perennial and will keep producing leaves for many months. To make the most of it, move it into another pot. Sorrel has an assertive, lemony tang that’s delicious but potentially overpowering. In salads, the trick is to shred it and add it in small quantities to add sparks of flavour.
If you choose the right varieties, salads can be harvested throughout the winter. As the temperature drops, yields fall, but flavours become fuller. This makes winter leaves particularly precious and delicious.
Good winter selections are Thompson & Morgan’s Winter Blend that includes scarlet kale, mustard ‘Red Frills’ and rocket and Sarah Raven’s Winter Salad Leaf Mix that includes hardy lettuces, cress ‘Bubbles’ and mustard ‘Golden Streaks’. Interestingly, neither of these mixes includes my two favourite winter salads: winter purslane (succulent leaves packed with vitamin C) or land cress (a very hardy plant with leaves that taste similar to watercress). But you can always buy these separately and mix them in.
Winter salads are best sown in August or September so that they are well established before light levels drop and the cold weather sets in. Growth is usually slow from November to early February so pick the outer leaves sparingly. As soon as spring arrives, the established plants will put on a growth spurt giving you a burst of fresh leaves in March and April.
A container salad garden would not be complete without a few edible flowers. The All Year Edible Flower Seed Collection from Sarah Raven includes nasturtiums, violas and pot marigolds. I particularly love the jewel-like flowers of nasturtiums with their mildly spicy taste. The young leaves are also edible and their round shape adds a bit of extra interest to salads. Violas will give you pretty edible flowers for winter salads and pot marigolds flower prodigiously all summer. All these edible flowers can be grown in the same way as the salads. For summer flowers, sow the pot marigolds from February to April and the nasturtiums in May. For late autumn and winter flowers sow the violas in August or September.
Growing your salads
Salads will grow in almost any pot or window box as long as it’s four or more inches deep. Use good quality peat-free compost like New Horizon. You can reuse the same compost to grow a second (and third and fourth!) crop, but you need to add fertiliser. For salads, I recommend adding a handful of chicken manure pellets. Poultry manure is high in nitrogen, which is needed for green, leafy growth. Alternatively, if you have a wormery, you can add a couple of generous handfuls of worm compost. Salads need just three to five hours of sun a day (unlike fruiting vegetables) so a slightly shady spot for your containers will be fine.
No going back
A huge plus of growing your own salads is that you can harvest them as and when you need them. It really doesn’t get any fresher than that. You can also pick as much or as little as you need, putting an end to those half-full packs of wilting leaves at the back of the fridge. And when it comes to a taste test between home-grown leaves and vacuum-packed salads from the shops – there’s no competition.