It is only when you grow your own lettuce leaves that you realise what a wonderful variety of textures, colors and flavors there are to experience. When I was young the most that went into a salad was sliced iceberg lettuce with some tomato and cucumber and this is still what many people limit themselves to today. Although supermarkets now offer more choice, it is so simple to grow a wide seasonal variety that would look good in even the most chic of restaurants. So, let’s get creative and celebrate the fantastic combinations that can be prepared from a garden...
In January I reviewed the excellent book Salad Leaves for All Seasons and since then I have been using it to plan the various lettuces and other salad crops to grow. I found that starting them off as Plug Plants has worked particularly well: lettuce is known for disliking being transferred from pots to ground which is why most people sow it directly into the soil. However, plug plants minimize root disturbance and have helped me get an earlier crop by starting the seedlings off indoors. Salad Leaves for All Seasons also has ideas for all kinds of interesting ingredients to grow, including herbs, chicories, endives and sorrel.
Early summer is when tender leaves predominate with a wonderful range of textures. These are the main ingredients I am growing for salads at the moment (with the particular varieties in brackets, mostly heirloom varieties from the Real Seed Catalogue):
- Butterhead lettuces: These are the traditional lettuces with large soft rounded leaves which eventually form a crisper heart in the middle. Overwintering varieties sown in October help to fill the gap in Spring when you most want something fresh and the newly sown lettuces are still baby leaves. After that they make a good base for the salad mix. (Winter Marvel, Optima)
- Oakleaf lettuce: These dark-coloured leaves with an elongated oak-leaf shape are very easy to grow and keep cropping for weeks. They quickly add colour to a plate and I found that I could even grow them over winter this year. (Emerald Oak and Flashy Butter Oak)
- Looseleaf lettuce: A lot of lettuces fall into this category but my favourites are the ones which are green and tinged with crimson around their serrated leaf edges. (Flame, Crisp Mint, Australian Yellowleaf)
- Batavian Lettuce: These characteristically crisp and crinkly leaves are often full of colour and the dark red varieties are particularly appealing, though slightly slower growing.
- Crisphead Lettuce: Not my favourite type due to my childhood association with tasteless iceberg lettuce but they do add a bit of crunch to the texture. (Pablo, Reine de Glaces)
- Romaine Lettuce: A great alternative to traditional crisphead and butterhead lettuces, romaine lettuces have upright leaves that are oval in shape. I love the waxy texture to these, sometimes with a bit of crunch as well. (Devil’s tongue)
- Brassicas: With their strong peppery flavours, brassicas such as arugula, mizuna, and pak choi become easier to grow and more valuable as crops for later in the year (when flea beetle and bolting are less of a problem), yet their spicy taste is a nice addition to early salads.
- Shoots: My favourite Italian cookbook says that a good salad should include ‘a root, a shoot and a fruit’. Early summer lacks the fruits such as tomatoes and most root crops are not well developed yet but the shoots of many vegetables can be eaten. With the notable exception of the Solanaceae family (tomatoes, potatoes, peppers etc) they make a great way to use up excess seeds. Pea shoots, baby beet leaves and young chard all make interesting additions to the mix.
My wife and I have been interested in raw food recently and whilst the health benefits are clearly there it is very difficult to sustain in a climate such as ours where harvests are thin for half of the year. The best advice seems to be to increase the proportion of raw foods in a diet and salads are the perfect way. With a moderate sized area (my salad bed is 6’ x 6’) you can be eating fresh salad leaves right through the summer months and well into autumn. Nutritious, packed with flavor and texture and one of the easiest things to grow – summer salads are so rewarding.