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Salad greens

Rachel Vogan steps into the healthy and colourful world of salad greens.

Fifty shades of green? Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as the raunchy book, but salad greens do come in a range of shades, hues and tones of green. Fresh salad greens may look the same to some, but they all have their own unique flavour. Finish them off with a dressing of your choice and dinner is done.

Salad greens are a variety of leafy greens that are commonly used, unsurprisingly, to make salad. Many are cousins to the common staple lettuce, some are direct descendants of the cabbage family, others hail from the mustard clan and some are close cousins to common weeds.

Numerous crops can be grown and tossed together to make a tasty, colourful and healthy salad. Whatever you choose to grow, the essentials for a flourishing, sweet, juicy crop are moist, fertile soil and plenty of sun. Many greens are happy to take up residence in pots and containers. Don’t be tempted to jam too many into a pot though, as this will cause disease problems. Good air circulation is paramount with all leafy crops and they need plenty of root room, so don’t skimp on the size of the pot either.
You can plant salad greens out in rows and keep them quite separate to pick and choose as you wish. They can also provide a garnish under taller container plants, such as tomatoes, lemons, topiary or roses; they all like the same conditions. Try a few in hanging baskets; sorrel and water cress are a couple that will cope with shade, along with parsley and spinach.

Spinach – probably the mightiest of all salad greens, it comes in a range of shapes, flavours and growth habits. The new red variety caught my eye – it tastes just the same as the standard green one, but with a neat red hue. Come-again perpetual spinach just keeps on giving, as long as you keep on harvesting. With slightly bigger leaves, pick it when the leaves are smaller. The native New Zealand spinach rambles along the ground and thrives in sun and part shade, making it a neat border plant, too. All can be harvested leaf by leaf, but if you forget to water spinach you will pay the price by it bolting and going to seed.

Spring onions – one of the ultimate salad crops, spring onions can be planted all year round and, as they take up so little space, you can really pack a lot into a small area. Have you ever tried to separate out those tiny little seedlings in punnets? Don’t bother, plant the whole plug and harvest as a clump, it’s so quick and easy you will wonder why you ever grew them the other way.

Baby beets (or beetroot leaves) – make a wonderful addition to salads. The brightly coloured leaves look amazing and add a definite beetroot taste without the mess of actual beetroot. When harvesting be careful not to take off all the leaves from each plant, they need some left on to photosynthesise and grow.

Mizuna – so quick to grow that even when sowing seeds, you will be harvesting leaves within a month. Available in red and green varieties. For optimum results, sow a few batches four to six weeks apart. Harvest by slicing the top of the plant off all at once, promoting a new set of leaves to burst out from the centre. The red variety isn’t quite as vigorous, but is widely sought after as it adds a certain bling to the salad bowl.

Chicory ‘Red Rib’ – a slightly bitter-tasting green, popular in Europe and found on many French menus. Closely related to the weed dandelion, it is a perennial crop that does require a little managing, so it doesn’t end up with a weed warning. I like it because it grows well through the winter, adds a welcome tang and can be sautéed.

Rocket (or arugula) – a generous salad crop that will reward you, a few months later, with a plethora of new seedlings if it bolts and goes to seed. This, along with mizuna, can be grown all year round. It will cope in the more barren soils as long as it has a good source of water. If you allow it to dry out, all you will get is flowers with no desired foliage. The perennial version has longer, serrated leaves and forms a more compact plant. The one referred to as sweet rocket has larger, paler green leaves and lives and dies within a season.

Cress – popular in salads and sandwiches, and commonly used as a garnish. Seedlings are not widely available as it is so easily grown from seed. Sprinkle in situ, water and, within a few days, seedlings should appear. Harvest before the leaves get too big. This is an ideal crop to add to salad bags as the sweet peppery tang adds a real freshness.

Sorrel – another hardy campaigner. Red and green sorrel are reliable, perennial salad crops. Red sorrel, in particular, is appearing a lot more in salad bags and as a garnish. With its deeply red-veined leaves and oval shape, it has the look of something quite delicate, yet it is as tough as old boots. Both can be grown from seed and plants
do appear in the shops. Both die down a little over winter, depending on how cold your climate is.

Parsley – is sometimes the unsung hero in salads, offering bright green colour and intense, yet refined, flavour. Some would say a salad is never dressed until the parsley is added. The thing to remember with parsley it that it is a biennial. This means it has a short life span of just two seasons, so every year it’s a good idea to plant a few more plants to ensure you are never without.

Mustard – best enjoyed while the leaves are young. As they get bigger, and they
do by the day, the leaves become a little hairy and not as palatable. Once they are at this stage, mine go to the chickens or I chop it finely into slaws and soups. This
isn’t a crop for the greenhouse, as it grows so fast you would struggle to keep it from blowing open. It is often grown as a microgreen.

Kale – packed full of loads of vitamins and minerals that are good for you. Kale is a popular salad crop, especially in the cooler months. When growing it for salads, plant plenty and harvest it leaf by leaf once the leaves are about thumb size – they are at their sweetest at this point. Seeds germinate within 10 days or so and plants are always in the shops. It’s a great option for tubs,
too, and a good choice to plant near the kitchen so healthy goodness is only a few footsteps away.

Whatever you choose to grow salad-wise this season, enjoy it raw and relish in the smug feeling of how much money it saves you and the good feeling you get when you grow your own.