Spirit of adventure helps make the most of salad days

It’s amazing how many easy-to- grow plants can bring colour, flavour and crunch to our summer meals

It’s amazing how many easy-to- grow plants can bring colour, flavour and crunch to our summer meals

IT SEEMS fitting to begin this week’s column with a quote from Joy Larkcom, the writer and gardener who has probably done more than any one else to transform the contents of the average salad bowl. “I would encourage all salad growers to approach salad growing in a spirit of adventure and enquiry”, she writes in her book,

Organic Salad Gardening

, which was first published in 1990. “Every garden is unique, and there are few wrongs and rights in gardening. Be prepared to experiment: don’t be bound by rules!”


It’s a policy that Larkcom herself followed in her early travels across Europe on what she calls her Great Vegetable Tour, “a long and wonderful voyage of discovery” that she undertook with her husband and their two young children in the mid-1970s, where they discovered many new salad plants and methods of cultivation. Later, Larkcom journeyed even further away, to China, Taiwan, Japan and the USA, “unravelling the mysteries of Asian vegetables”, as she describes it. “The fast-growing leafy greens, above all, came to fill a key role in our salad making”, she explains in her introduction.

So, in Larkcom’s stated “spirit of adventure and enquiry”, what exactly is a salad leaf? Put simply, its any leaf that’s considered tasty, edible and flavoursome, whether thats the leaf of a so-called weed (dandelion, chickweed, hairy bittercress), the leaf of a vegetable usually cultivated for its other parts (baby beetroot leaves, young pea shoots), or the leaf of any herb (lovage, coriander, basil, chervil, salad burnet).

It can equally be the leaf of a flower (nasturtium, garland chysanthemum), or the tender, baby leaves of vegetables such as kale, ruby chard or cabbage. It’s also, of course, any lettuce leaf, as well as the leaves of chicory, cress and the oriental brassicas, such as mizuna, mibuna, mustards, komatsuna and pak choi.

In the walled garden, OPW gardeners Meeda Downey and Brian Quinn grow a range of salad leaves, from the dark-purple, miniature Cos lettuce, Pandero, to the apple-green leaves of lettuce, Domitilla, as well as the sweet, peppery leaves of salad rocket, young spinach and strongly-flavoured garlic chives.

If they wished, the gardeners could also harvest the succulent leafy tips of the heritage mangetout pea, Carouby de Maussane , whose pretty, purple flowers are also edible, as well as the young leaves of the beetroot and kale crop.

But the best thing about growing your own salad leaves is that you don’t need a large walled garden, or even any garden, as many of these leafy plants grow spectacularly well in pots or even just in a window box. Nearly all can be treated as CCA crops (cut-and-come-again) where tender baby leaves are harvested several times from the young growing plant.

Seed suppliers such as Thompson & Morgan offer a range of premixed salad leaf collections, including herbs, oriental “greens” or simply a blend of different lettuce varieties. Most have leaves that are as beautiful and colourful as they are tasty; lacy mustards that come in shades of purple, gold and lime-green, sharply-serrated, spicy mizunas and the daintily scalloped leaves of salad burnet are just a few of the varieties available.

If you’re interested in growing some of the more hard-to-get varieties, investigate the catalogue of UK-based CN Seeds (cnseeds.co.uk), the herb and baby leaf specialists who offer an extensive range of seeds including amaranth (cherry-red leaves with pea-like flavour), orache (scarlet leaves with mild, spinach flavour), golden purslane (crunchy and juicy with a slightly tart taste) and Greek cress (peppery, nutty flavour). CN Seeds also offers some of these as microgreens, or microleafs, where the leaves are harvested at a very early stage of growth (between seven and 21 days old), and at a point where theyre crammed full of flavour and goodness. Check out Brown Envelope Seeds also (brown envelopeseeds.com), for other unusual salad plants, including the February orchid, a plant first collected by Larkcom in China.

But whatever salad leaves you decide to grow, remember to successionally sow smallish amounts of seed to guarantee a steady supply and to avoid a sudden glut. If growing in pots, use a good quality compost, place somewhere sunny(ish) and water very regularly. Remember also that many lettuce varieties germinate poorly at temperatures above 25 C. Larkcom suggests getting around this by sowing seed in late afternoon so that germination coincides with cooler night-time temperatures, and by watering the soil before sowing to cool it down.

Finally, don’t forget to exploit the decorative beauty of those tasty leaves – a pot full of nasturtiums, perilla, mustard and mizuna leaves, mixed with swiss chard and interplanted with basil and edible pansies, will look just as wonderful as it tastes.

  • Professional organic gardener Klaus Laitenberger will be launching his excellent new book, Vegetables: For The Irish Gardenat the 1st Galway Garden Festival (galwaygardenfestival.com) on Saturday, July 10th. In her recent review of the book, Joy Larkcom described it as "an invaluable source of information for vegetable growers here – novices and experienced alike".
  • The OPW's Victorian walled kitchen garden is in the grounds of the Phoenix Park Visitor Centre, beside the Phoenix Park Cafe and Ashtown Castle. The gardens are open daily from 10am to 4.30pm
  • Fionnuala Fallon is a garden designer and writer

Make way for the fabulous Figo

MANY SUMMER crops now need to be netted, whether it’s to protect them from gluttonous blackbirds (strawberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants, raspberries etc) or from pests such as cabbage butterflies. But as anyone who’s battled with unwieldy lengths of garden netting will quickly testify, this is easier said than done; too often, the result is a tangle of torn netting, collapsed/broken bamboo sticks and the adult version of a temper tantrum.

That’s why Figo, the new DIY garden frame system that allows you to quickly build your own temporary fruitcage, is such a wonderfully ingenious invention. Made from pliable rubber, its flexible, hinged connectors fit bamboos/sticks/rods with a diameter of anywhere between 8-16mm, and are perfect for anyone wanting to protect their fruit/vegetable crop. Just build the frame (you’ll need four three-way connectors and eight bamboos for a basic rectangle) and then cover with netting (you’ll need some garden wire/string to fix this in place).

You can also use Figo to make windbreaks, makeshift tents, or even geodesic domes (one for the more adventurous urban farmer to try), while children love using them to make elaborate shelters. Figo is distributed by UNICHEM and is now available in many garden centres throughout the country, including Hacketts (Dublin); Easygarden, Blackrock, Co Dublin; The Orchard, Celbridge; The Arboretum, Leighlinbridge; Springmount, Gorey; Douglas Court, Douglas, Cork; and Horkan’s, Castlebar, Co Mayo. Expect to pay €2 to €2.25 per connector, or €19.95 for a kit containing 10 connectors. For more information and inspiration on how to use this very clever invention, check out figoframes.com. But budding architects, be warned. It’s dangerously addictive.

What to: sow, plant and do now

Sow outdoors:French beans, runner beans, beetroot, calabrese, carrots, mini cauliflowers, chicory, courgettes, cucumbers, endives, kohl rabi, komatsuna, land cress, lettuce, mibuna, mizuna, mustards, pak choi, spring onions, peas, mangetout, sugar snap, radish, rocket, spinach (annual perpetual), swedes, turnips.

Plant:Sprouting broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbages, cauliflowers, kale, celery, celeriac, courgettes, fennel, leeks, lettuce, peppers, pumpkins, sweet corn, tomatoes.

Do:Continue sowing seed and pricking out/ thinning seedlings, water young seedlings plants, weed/hoe beds, net young brassicas, soft fruit and fruit bushes, cover carrots with Bionet, earth-up and spray non-blight resistant potatoes with Dithane to protect against blight, pinch out side basal shoots and stake tomatoes, watch out for garden pests.

Fionnuala Fallon

Fionnuala Fallon

Fionnuala Fallon is an Irish Times contributor specialising in gardening