If you plan it carefully, you can grow salad leaves to eat every week of the year: speedy rocket in spring, bountiful, multi-coloured cut-and-come-again oak leaf and butterhead lettuces in summer, red mustard greens and other Japanese leaves in autumn and, undercover through winter, the robust-flavoured chicories: radicchio, escarole, endive and puntarelle. Because we had a very mild December (although it’s been cold since the New Year), I have had small amounts of rocket, sown last spring, to take home from the plot, and this is starting to put on more growth – although it will bolt after a while. As it is possible to plan a 52-week salad plot, this sprawling, catch-all category of veg is my Star of the Week. The long Easter weekend is the perfect time to start planning your salad plot.
Lettuce seeds are one of the first things I sow once the season gets going in February – they need to start undercover this early, or can be sown outside from late March. I prefer to start mine off in modules, with several seeds per cell, to control their germination and early growth – scattering them on open ground leaves them too prone to birds and slugs. I have prepared a raised bed of rotted manure mixed with general-purpose compost, kept warm with a layer of fleece. Next week I will prick out the tiny seedlings – easing them out of the modules with a pencil and holding them by a leaf, not the fragile stalk – then planting them individually into the fluffy warm soil, keeping the fleece on top, raised a little off the soil by bamboo arches so the delicate seedlings don’t get damaged. Lettuce can be sown outside once the soil temperature is over 7C, which mine has been for a few weeks – but it’s best to nurture your seedlings a little bit until spring is well underway.
I have also sown rocket and spinach in modules which can also be pricked out any day now. Once they are planted into the raised bed, I will sow more seeds in succession every 2-3 weeks, to try to keep my fridge stocked up with lettuce and other leaves. Japanese Greens are sown from May through to August, while the chicories can be started off from June onwards. I grow each variety in a narrow row, about two foot wide, in a bed of many varieties to keep the salad crops as diverse as possible.
These are the varieties I have sown so far this year:
‘All the Year Round’ – as it sounds, a lettuce that can be sown from early spring to late autumn, and should be given some protection from October onwards. Butterhead type.
‘Red Oak Leaf’ – a beautiful, classically shaped lettuce.
‘Sweetheart’ – a medium-sized cos lettuce.
‘Amaze’ – this was the best lettuce I grew last year, it kept going through the summer, and its vivid red and dark green colouring looked beautiful in the salad bowl. Can be harvested as an open, cut-and-come-again lettuce but left to grow it develops into a mini-gem/romaine head.
‘Marvel of 4 Seasons’ – butterhead type, heritage variety that can, as the name suggests, be grown all year round.
‘Mazur’ – green loose leaf frisee with a high yield, as you can see from the picture below.
‘Lollo Rosso’ – the classic frilly open leaf red lettuce
‘Da Taglio’ – another loose leaf, frilly lettuce.
‘Riccia Lollo’ – frothy open leaf, green, slow to bolt in summer.
‘Maravilla de Verano Canasta’ – green leaves splashed with red, semi-open head, slow to bolt.
‘Misticanza di Lattughe’ – a mix of gourmet lettuce leaves.
I have also sown rocket, baby greens ‘Senposai 3’, and two varieties of spinach: ‘Red Kitten’ F1 and ‘Reddy’.
I buy my seeds from DT Brown, which has a decent range of leaves, and Seeds of Italy, where I bought all the Italian varieties listed above and whose packets are good value for money, as there are hundreds of seeds inside.
By mid-April I will remove the fleece. The worst problem for lettuce is slugs, and you can try pellets, organic or not, egg shells, wool, coffee, beer traps or copper tape but I have found that the only way to rid the plot of slugs altogether is nematodes, a biological slug-killer, which are applied with a watering can every six weeks from now until September. The main brand name is Nemaslug, and is ordered online. It is safe for humans, pets and wildlife, except slugs, obviously.
Lettuce and spinach are excellent for shaded parts of the plot, as they will be less likely to bolt if kept cool in hot, dry weather.
The first sowings of lettuce should be ready to harvest in eight weeks, for the cut-and-come-again leaves, although you’ll have to wait longer for hearting/cos varieties. Once you’ve had a few weeks of salads, you can start sowing Japanese greens from May, and chicories after mid-summer.
I will sow the following chicory varieties, direct into the warm soil:
Escarole ‘Scarola Verde’ – a type of endive, with flatter, smoother, rounder leaves rather than the frizzy ones of a typical endive. Escarole look like lettuce but the leaves are tougher, and are better lightly braised rather than eaten raw. Like other leaves from the chicory genus, they can withstand cooler temperatures, so are perfect for our winters.
Radicchio di Treviso ‘Black Svelta’ – deep red leaves with stark white veins, hearting.
Chicory ‘Puntarelle of Brindisi’ – puntarelle has long, upright jagged leaves like rocket or dandelion.
Chicory ‘Variegata di Castelfranco’ – my favourite chicory variety which has pale green leaves streaked with red.
Chicory ‘Forcing Witloof’ – sow this in late summer, then once it has hearted in October or November, lift the plant and cut the leaves to one inch above the base, replant in a pot and cover with black polythene or another pot without holes and wait for it to regrow as a yellow chicon. The absence of light gives it a sweeter flavour.
My fellow plotholder, Maurizio, recommends a traditional neapolitan recipe for cooking escarole, called Pizza di scarola,:
Take one escarole head, gently boil for two minutes in salted water and then drain and roughly chop and set aside. Chop two cloves of garlic, four black olives, a handful of capers and two salted anchovies and fry together in olive oil for two minutes. Stir the garlic and anchovy mixture through the escarole, and season.
Make up some bread dough using strong white flour. Once the dough is kneaded, roll out and then fold the escarole mix into the dough. Bake in the oven for 40 minutes or until golden brown.
Any of the chicories – but particularly the deep red ones – will taste bitter on their own or without cooking. You could apply the same rule to dressing salads as to dressing yourself: in summer, light and floral – lemon or yuzu juice with a restrained drizzle of zesty Greek olive oil, letting the sun-grown delicate leaves speak for themselves; in winter, warmer and more robust to balance the bitterness of the chicories and Japanese greens. Put a leaf of raw castelfranco together with a strong-tasting cheese like Comté and everything will be fine, but let it out on its own and it will dominate your palate and make you sad that something so pretty can taste so bitter. In a winter salad of chicory leaves, use honey or maple syrup in dressing.
Radicchio is fantastic in risotto – again, plenty of cheese and butter, along with the creaminess of the rice, balances the taste. Cook risotto as normal, with onion, white wine, stock and risotto rice, and blanch the chopped radicchio separately before stirring in the risotto with parmesan and butter a minute before the end.