Salad is not just lettuce

I like to eat a home-grown lunch. Winter is a time for hearty soups from the plot but after months of variations on vegetable and squash soups, I look forward to a homegrown salad for lunch. I could grow salad veg for much of the year in my polytunnel but I like to follow the seasons.

By June, lettuce and other salad veg are well underway. Lettuce may be the backbone of the salad, but I grow a wide range of other leafy salad veg to accompany.

The bowl of salad in the photo has 12 different leaves: lettuce (Little Gem, Valmaine and oakleaf), wild rocket,  dill, Genovese and red-leaved basil, dill, tree spinach (young leaves tinged with purple), summer purslane, red frilled mustard, orache, caraway and oysterleaf  plus flowers of rocket and rose petals.

I prefer to pick lettuce leaves rather than harvest a whole head as there is less waste and I feel I get more from the plants.  I grow a range of varieties too – the mainstays being Little Gem, red salad leaf, oakleaf and Valmaine. Later in the summer I switch to endives, radicchio, and varieties that are more cold-tolerant like Valdor.

I sow and transplant the lettuce but the fillers – dill, tree spinach, red frilled mustard and  purslane  are self sown. I let them flower and sow seed. Then the following year I have plenty coming up in the salad beds saving so much time. I just hoe the ones I don’t want – easy peasy!

Mid summer harvest including tree spinach (top L), orache (top R), summer purslane (bottom L) and agretti (bottom R)

Here are a few ideas for crops to sow for adding interest and flavour  to your salads

  • Agretti  (Salsola soda)  – can be a game to get germinated as its not proper seed, but once its underway you have  quite large plants with long, thin and crunchy leaves to be eaten raw or lightly boiled.  Can be sown inside and out.  Its called monk’s beard on fancy menus!  One of my favourites
  • Amaranth – the young leaves are really tasty and  the purple variety looks great in salads
  • Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium)  – often called French parsley  and looks a bit like flat parsley,  mild  flavour used in a fines herbes mix
  • Cornsalad or lambs lettuce  – more for winter, low growing clump forming that is sown towards the end of summer and can be used through autumn into winter.
  • Coriander (Coriandrum sativum)  – easy to grow, inside or outside in summer
  • Dill (Anethum graveolens)  a self seeder all over the polytunnel, love its aniseed  flavour
  • Minutina or buckshorn plantain  – not a weed but a domesticated plantain, very easy to grow, it forms clumps of long forked leaves that resemble antlers, hence the name
  • Mizuna – fast growing plants with a mild peppery flavour
  • Nasturtiums – a dual purpose crop – a trap crop for white butterflies, and excellent pollinator. Both flower and leaf can be eaten, with a peppery flavour to add a bit of zing
  • Oysterleaf (Mertensia maritima) another cheffie choice, a  fleshy grey leaf with a mildly fishy / shellfish  taste  Grow as a perennial  in a gravel garden or container.
  • Summer purslane (Portulaca oleracea) – one of my favourites. Its low growing with fleshy leaves with a bit of crunch. Mine set seed all over the polytunnel . Said to have more vitamins A,B, C and E than spinach and loads of minerals  – try chilled courgette soup with purslane
  • Pea shoots – try germinating some old dried peas in the store cupboard – a surprising number will be viable  
  • Shiso perilla (Perilla frutescens) that comes in red and green leaf forms. A spicy leaf that reminds you of lots of  herbs and spices. Can be tricky to germinate as it needs light.
  • Spinach – true spinach can be grown for baby leaves  as well as a leafy veg
  • Tree spinach (Chenopodium giganteum) one of those plants that self seed everywhere so no shortage of plants once you have grown it for a season. Grows quickly so keep taking the young pink leaves. Can be a nitrate accumulator on rich soils so don’t eat too much.

By the time its September and the tomatoes are finishing and the salad veg are looking a bit worse for wear, I’ll  be looking forward to those soups again!