UK gardening help and assistance

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APRIL 2000



Growing Your Own (Part II)  Salad Vegetables

By Pauline Lloyd

In last month's article I went into some of the advantages of growing your own food, focusing in particular on the varieties of beans that grow well in the UK.

But, perhaps one of the best ways of providing fresh, tasty and nutritious food for yourself and for your family is to grow your own salad vegetables.

So what exactly is a salad vegetable?

Well a salad vegetable is basically any vegetable that you might wish to eat in a salad! So lettuce, spring onions, cucumber, radishes and tomatoes are certainly salad vegetables, but so too are many other vegetables that you perhaps don't immediately think of as salad crops.

These secondary salad vegetables include onions, peas, peppers, carrots, beetroot, broccoli, cauliflower and spinach.

These vegetables can all be used raw in a salad and in addition there are many other vegetables (e.g. beans, globe artichokes and potatoes) which can be cooked, allowed to go cold and then mixed in with a salad.

So as you can see, with so many exciting possibilities to choose from, salads certainly never need to be boring!

What To Grow

When you grow your own salad vegetables, on the whole they tend to be a lot fresher than shop-bought produce. Lettuces, for example, can be pulled from the garden (or allotment) just before being washed and eaten. And particularly useful are the many salad crops which are described as 'cut and come again'. Which basically means that you just snip off leaves when you require them, the rest of the plant remaining in the ground where it can continue to make new growth, until it's needed again. In fact most salad crops are very easy to grow. And on the whole they grow rapidly, so that a surprisingly large amount of fresh salad can be produced even from just a small area of land. My Lettuce Patch!In the picture to the left (taken in July last year) you can see my own small salad patch. This sunken area (which is just under three square feet) is mainly used for growing lettuces. It was originally a children's sandpit, before being converted to a small garden pond for a while. But now it makes an excellent salad patch and is filled with ordinary garden soil, to which I regularly add some home-made garden compost, a sprinkling of seaweed meal and a small amount of leaf mould if I have any to spare. Most of the lettuces that you can see in this picture are of an oakleaf variety called 'Cocarde'. I grew this variety for the first time last year and was truly amazed by its performance. Extremely vigorous, it survived constant attack by slugs, as well as regular plucking by me and I had so much left at the end of the season that I even ended up having to compost quite a lot of it too! If you can find it, I would heartily recommend this variety. (I bought my seeds from the Organic Gardening Catalogue, but unfortunately they doesn't seem to be offering it again in this year's catalogue, only a similar variety.) Cocarde is a particularly useful salad crop (as indeed are most oakleaf lettuces) because it's possible to remove fresh leaves from the plant whenever you need them, leaving the rest of the plant to grow on. Other varieties of lettuce that I would recommend include: 'Winter Density', a semi-cos variety of lettuce, that is particularly good for autumn sowing, but which grows well in my garden throughout most of the year. Last year I also tested out 'Mixed Leaves' (also from the Organic gardening Catalogue) which is an interesting mixture of butterhead, cos, crisp and loosehead varieties, some red some green. These leaves look lovely all mixed up together in a salad bowl. I planted this mixture amongst my onions and thought that it was a wonderful way to try out lots of different varieties of lettuce at once. Another of my favourite lettuces is the variety 'Tom Thumb', a quick growing dwarf butterhead variety, ideal for the small garden or for a small family. And 'Saladini' is an interesting 'cut and come again' mixture of lettuce, endive and chicory which is also ideal for sowing in a small area. There are of course many other varieties of lettuce that you can try out. You will find a good selection of lettuces in the Organic Gardening Catalogue. Experiment by growing quite a few different varieties and discover your own favourites!

Other interesting salad leaves include:

  • Land Cress (American Winter Cress) This variety of cress is extremely easy to grow and has a flavour similar to watercress. Sow seeds in both spring and early autumn for a continuous supply throughout theyear. Landcress can be intercropped, or used as an edging plant for your vegetable beds.
  • Claytonia (Winter Purslane/Miner's Lettuce)
    Sow in August for a winter crop, or in late spring for summer use. Claytonia is a useful salad leaf, providing a good supply of green leaves in spring. Leaves can be cut off when required. This hardy annual should be protected with a layer of straw (or another form of protection) in severe winters.
  • Rocket
    Can be sown from spring to September for a continuous supply of green leaves throughout the year. Rocket has a pungent, peppery taste. It can also be grown in a container.
  • Corn Salad (Lamb's Lettuce)
    Another useful winter salad plant, available when lettuce is scarce. It will grow well on a wide variety of soils and can be sown from spring through to the early autumn. These mild leaves have a slightly nutty flavour. Corn salad can be grown outside in the winter, but is best protected by cloches.
  • Dandelion
    The young leaves can be used in salads. Sow seed in spring or early summer, if you haven't already got a good supply of dandelions growing in your garden! Dandelions will thrive in most soils and can provide a supply of greens leaves over the winter in temperate regions. Dandelions are a good source of vitamin C and vitamin A.
  • Chickweed (Stellaria media)
    Another common 'weed' which you may find growing in your garden. The whole plant can be eaten raw in a salad.
  • Nasturtium
    The leaves, seeds and flowers can all be used to add a tangy, peppery flavour to a salad. Nasturtiums will grow well in a window box, or in a pot on a patio or balcony. In addition the flowers make a attractive, colourful display.

Other Salad Crops:

Radishes: Another fast growing salad vegetable, often ready in just over a month in the summer months, although winter varieties usually take longer to grow. Radishes provide vitamin C, iron and calcium. I would particularly recommend 'French Breakfast' for spring and summer use. My favourite winter varieties include: 'Belrosa', 'Black Spanish Round' and the Japanese variety known as 'Summer Cross F1 (Mouli)'.

Herbs: Many herbs are excellent for use in salads. I particularly like to add fresh parsley to my salad. I would recommend the variety 'Champion Moss Curled' (which grows well in containers indoors, as well as outside) as well as flat-leaved parsley and the more vigorous, taller variety of parsley known as 'Italian Giant'. Parsley is very nutritious supplying vitamin C and iron. Mint leaves are also nice in salads and garlic cloves can be crushed and used in salad dressings. Chopped basil leaves will do much to enhance the flavour of a tomato salad. Welsh onions and chives are easy to grow and will add a delicious hint of onion to a salad. They have the additional advantage that they green up early in the year, providing valuable salad greens at a time when there may not be much else available in the garden apart from perhaps land cress.

Beetroot: Sow beetroot from April to July for a late summer/autumn crop. Beetroot is excellent grated and eaten raw, perhaps mixed with grated carrots in a vinaigrette dressing. However, it can also be cooked and eaten cold in salads. And at the end of the season small, left-over beetroots can be pickled for use in salads throughout the winter months. I particularly like the variety 'Detroit Globe', but beetroot doesn't necessarily have to be crimson. Try a yellow-fleshed variety such as 'Golden' or 'Burpee's Golden' for a change. Some catalogues even offer white varieties (e.g. Albinia verecunda) too. The green leaves are also extremely useful. They are particularly nice steamed or used in stir-fries, but young leaves can also be eaten raw in salads.

Celeriac: Is a delicious, easily-grown, winter vegetable that tastes like celery. The roots can be grated and used raw in salads and the leaves can be chopped and used in salads too. Try the organic variety 'President RZ' offered by the Organic Gardening Catalogue. Celeriac likes a rich soil with plenty of added organic matter. Roots can be dug up late in the season and stored in a dry shed, or else they can be left in the ground until required. Sow celeriac in February or March and plant out in May.

Endive: A crisp salad plant, closely related to chicory and a good substitute for lettuce in salads. If given some protection endive will survive light frost and crop into the early winter. It's also widely grown for spring and summer use. Some endives need to be blanched (covered) but many of the modern varieties are self-blanching. For example the varieties Stratego RZ and Monaco RZ, both offered by the Organic Gardening Catalogue.

Cucumber: Cucumbers are often eaten raw in salads. They require a very rich soil with plenty of vegetable compost and also need plenty of water. They grow best in a greenhouse or cold frame in temperate regions. I don't claim to be an expert on cucumbers, although I have grown them once or twice, but not having a greenhouse I grew mine outside and was rather disappointed with their yield. There are of course varieties which will grow outside including 'Burpless Tasty Green F1', 'Bush Champion F1', 'Marketmore', 'Stimora Mix F1', 'Crystal Apple', and 'Slice King F1', all available from the Organic Gardening Catalogue. Cucumbers need to be grown on a warm, sheltered site. Sow seeds indoors in mid-spring and plant out about six weeks later in early summer. Cucumbers don't like frost and so they may need some protection in their early stages. And unfortunately, cucumbers are also prone to quite a few diseases including cucumber mosaic virus and mildew and attack by slugs. The flowers can also be eaten raw in salads.

Chicory: Specially useful in the autumn and over the winter months, chicory is easily grown and has a characteristic bitter flavour which is reduced by blanching. Raw chicory can be used shredded in salads, adding extra taste and colour. There are many different types of chicory, ranging in colour. Chicory is widely grown in Italy, where red leaved chicories are known as 'radicchio.' Many types of chicory are lifted in the autumn and are then either stored in a cool place, or the 'chicons' of some varieties (e.g. 'Witloof') can be forced in sand in a warm, dark place. Ground, dried chicory root is often used as a coffee substitute.

Sweet Peppers: Are an excellent source of vitamin C and taste delicious when sliced and used raw in a salad. If you use different coloured peppers (e.g. red, green, orange, purple and yellow) then peppers can also make a salad look visually very attractive. Peppers should be sown in pots indoors in February and are then planted outside when all danger of frost has passed in early June. They will grow in containers on a sunny patio, but often grow best in a greenhouse in the UK. Pepper seeds are often quite expensive to purchase. But if you can't afford to buy seeds, then you may be interested to know that I have grown peppers from seeds removed from peppers purchased from my local market. Much cheaper!

Tomatoes: Outdoor tomatoes should be sown indoors (perhaps in a propagator on a sunny window sill) at the end of March or in early April. Tomatoes for glasshouse production are best sown in early March. Pot up the seedlings when large enough to handle and place the plants outside at the beginning of June, or when all danger of frost has passed. Tomatoes like a sunny position and fertile well-drained soil. But they can also be grown in containers, perhaps on a sunny patio. And of course they are often grown in greenhouses. Tall varieties need to be staked. When I grow tomatoes I apply some garden compost to the surface of my tomato bed, usually about three weeks after transplanting when the plants are well established. And then when the tomatoes are starting to form, I feed regularly with liquid seaweed extract (SM3) and home-made comfrey solution. There are many varieties of tomatoes to choose from, but most varieties belong to one of three main groups: beef, medium-sized or small-fruited cherry tomatoes. Varieties that I have grown successfully include: Ailsa Craig, Alicante, Moneymaker and Marmande. Tomatoes don't have to be red though. The Heritage Seed Library offers green, yellow and purple varieties too. And this year I am going to test out two of HSL's old varieties - 'Sub Arctic Plenty' and 'Early Outdoors' both of which are supposed to be heavy, early croppers.

Sprouts: Lentils, sunflowers, alfalfa, mustard, cress, radish, wheat and barley are just some of the various seeds that can be sprouted. Sprouts are excellent in salads and many are exceedingly rich in valuable nutrients and minerals. And you don't need a garden in order to grow your own sprouts - they can easily be grown in a special seed sprouter, or in a jar covered with a piece of muslin on your window sill. If you would like more information on this topic, then please refer to my earlier article on the subject, or read Chapter 9 in Salads for Small Gardens by Joy Larkcom.

Secondary Salad Vegetables:

In addition the following vegetables, although not generally thought of as salad vegetables, can all be eaten raw in salads:

Kale - The young leaves of many varieties of kale can be added to salads. The dwarf variety of curly kale known as 'Frosty' is particularly nice in salads.

Holland Late Winter - Is a white ballhead cabbage which is good shredded and made into coleslaw. Sow May/June and harvest October to December. This variety stores well.

Peas - I sow the variety 'Feltham First' in late February and it's ready for harvest about mid-June. Little Marvel is another type of pea that I would recommend. I sow this variety in early June for an early autumn harvest. Freshly-shelled, raw peas are great in salads!

Onions: Both red and white onions are nice sliced and eaten raw in salads. Try planting sets of either 'Stuttgart Giant', or the red variety of onion called 'Red Baron'. Sets planted in March will be ready for harvest around July or August. Some varieties of onion sets are also available for autumn planting and produce mature onions somewhat earlier in June/July. (See Organic Gardening Catalogue.)

Carrots: Try 'Amsterdam Forcing' or 'Nantes' for an early spring sowing, 'Chantenay Red-Cored' for an early maincrop and 'Autumn King' as a maincrop. Homegrown carrots have a marvellous smell and taste. Small carrots can be washed and eaten whole in a salad, but larger carrots are best grated.

In the Salad Garden: Pests

The worse salad garden pest is easily the slug. And young lettuces are particularly popular with these often not so wee beasts! Consequently I usually sow all my lettuce seed indoors and raise the plants in pots (or trays) until they reach a reasonable size before placing them outside. As an additional precaution I cover young lettuce plants with cloches (made from sawn off plastic fizzy drinks bottles) at least until the plants are well established. If slugs are a real problem in your garden you could also try applying 'Nemaslug', a mixture of microscopic nematodes designed to reproduce inside and kill slugs. (It's rather expensive, but can be purchased from the Organic Gardening Catalogue.) And you could also try encouraging natural predators such as frogs and hedgehogs into your garden. Failing that, go out into the garden yourself just after it has been raining and pick off any slugs you see by hand!

I've also found that slugs adore young parsley and rocket, but will generally ignore hot, peppery land cress which can usually be sown safely straight into the ground. Tomatoes and anything oniony also seem to be safe from slugs ....... Oh and you may need to watch out for Peter Rabbit too!

Some Easy Salad Recipes For You To Try Out:

  • Coleslaw - Wash and grate about a quarter of a small white cabbage. Wash, peel and grate one small carrot. Mix the grated vegetables together in a bowl and add a small amount of Plamil Egg Free Mayonnaise (with or without garlic). Mix and serve. Nice in sandwiches and on top of salads or baked potatoes.
  • Carrot and Beetroot Salad -Wash, peel and grate a medium beetroot. Mix with a grated carrot. Make up a vinaigrette dressing, by mixing 1 tbsp of olive oil with 1 tbsp of white wine vinegar. Pour the dressing over the grated vegetables and serve. For extra flavour add some raisins, or sprinkle with sesame seeds if desired.
  • Greek Potato Salad - Cook 900g of new potatoes. Allow to cool and then slice them into 1/4" slices. Place the potato slices on a serving plate with a finely sliced red onion. Stone 50g of olives and place these on top. Combine 4 tbsp of olive oil with 2 tbsp of wine vinegar. Pour the dressing over the top of the salad and sprinkle on 1 tsp of mixed herbs or dried thyme. Allow the salad to chill in the fridge before serving. For a better flavour make the salad the day before and leave it in the fridge overnight.
  • Marinated Peppers - Use 450g of assorted sweet peppers. Wash the peppers and cut them in half, removing the seeds. Grill the peppers until their skins are going black and the peppers are soft. Alternatively place them on a baking tray and bake for 30 mins at Gas 6 (200 degrees C). Leave to cool and remove the skins. Cut the peppers into strips and place these in a dish, bowl or other suitable container. Mix 3 tbsp of olive oil with 2 tbsp of white wine vinegar. Crush two cloves of garlic. Add the garlic to the dressing, along with 1 sprig of thyme and 2 tbsp of chopped parsley. Pour the dressing over the peppers and leave to marinate overnight in the fridge. Serve marinated peppers with a salad, or on toasted bread (bruschetta) that has been rubbed with olive oil and garlic.