ADVICE & TIPS: Excite Your Tastebuds with Exotic Salads

Be inspired as exotic salads expert Richard Bartlett returns with a new article on his experiences of growing unusual salad crops. Richard's article is quite comprehensive so you might prefer to print this page out for reading off-line or save to disk.

GROWING LIKE A ROCKET

One of the most common questions I get asked is: ' Why does my Salad Rocket start flowering so quickly? I can only get one cut, before it flowers.'

As far as I could understand from the vast majority of people who have asked me about salad rocket, they had all sown their rocket during May and June. Rocket will always want to flower at this time of year, because this is the time of year when all crucifers naturally flower, then produce seed. The best time for sowing a crop that doesn't start producing flowers immediately is under protection in the early spring, or outside in August. Also sow some under protection in September for an autumn crop, which can produce through the winter, depending how cold it gets.

It is fine to grow rocket through the summer from sowings made from March - August, but just remember, it will try to flower quickly, so it is important to make successional sowings so you have a regular supply. The flowers are perfectly edible, they make a pretty garnish anyway.

Last year we included in our seed list turkish rocket for the first time. The seed company who supplied me described it as being similar to salad rocket, except with a darker green leaf. We have grown it this year - from a sowing made in July - and cannot see any difference in the colour of the leaf, although it does seem to produce a larger leaf. One or two people I asked to taste it said they thought it had a slightly stronger flavour than salad rocket, but no way as intense in flavour as the wild rocket. Although it is called Turkish rocket it is completely different to another plant called Turkish rocket. Sorry, it gets a bit complicated at times.... It is like two of the mustards I grow - mustard suehlihung and mustard green-in-snow. They are two completely different mustards - suehlihung has mizuna-like, serrated, long leaves and green-in-snow elliptic leaves. I understand that 'suehlihung' in mandarin means 'green-in-snow'. Figure that one.


PURSLANE BRIEF

I always grow purslane, mainly the golden form, sowing from April - early August in my tunnels through the summer months, because I have found it a complete waste of time trying to grow them outside in this part of the country. It isn't constantly warm enough. 2000 has been one of the worst years I have experienced, because we have had a lot of cool cloudy days, which they purslane doesn't like. We had a good spell in June and now it is growing well (middle of August); although it is too late to sow any more because the summer is almost over. The leaves get little brown blotches on them when the plants get a bit cold, which spreads over the leaf and it wont last when cut.

PAK CHOI RETURNS

This season I have tried growing six varieties of pak choi for salad leaf production. None of them though measure up to pak choi joi choi, except for pak choi extra dwarf. They have, in my opinion, a far superior flavour, but most importantly as far as I am concerned, pak choi joi choi is the easiest of all the pak choi varieties to grow and I have tried 15 varieties over the last few years. 'Joi choi' is heat tolerant, and those growing in my polytunnels through the summer months have grown well, keeping their colour - unlike the others whose leaves yellowed a lot in the heat and immediately started flowering. In the winter joi choi is very hardy and will grow in any mild spells, as long as they are provided with some protection in the colder spells.

It is the only oriental green this year which has given me 4-5 cuts before starting to flower and some of them have provided me with more than that. They like plenty of water in the warm weather. I have grown them in tunnels, covered with green shade netting to keep the strong sunlight off them in the middle of the summer. I find this certainly helps.

As I mentioned, the taste of pak choi extra dwarf is as good as joi choi, but I don't find it so easy to grow. I have grown it through two summers now and it goes to flower very quickly. I haven't as yet had a chance to grow it in the autumn or winter. I tried it this spring and again it went straight into flower after the first cut.


GROWING TIPS FOR WINTER HARVEST

If you want some salad leaves to grow through the autumn / winter. You should sow outside from August - September, or under protection from late August - early October.

If you have a spare bit of clean ground outside, dig in some compost, rake the ground over and you are ready to sow. I suggest you sow a small selection, at regular periods so the leaves are not all ready at the same time.

Before sowing winter salads in my tunnels, I fork in some spent mushroom compost into the beds. I grow in prepared beds about 120 cms wide by 240 cms deep, fitting 6 rows in each bed.

A bit of general advice: - Watch out for signs of mildew (white and furry) on the leaves, mainly in October and November. At first signs remove affected leaves and whole plants if necessary. This will help to stop it spreading. Keep the area around crops as clean as possible, removing all decaying matter, and hoeing every now and then.

Also slugs can be a problem at this time of year, more on the milder flavoured leaves, than the mustards and cresses. When you are cutting a few leaves for your salad and see a slug don't be squeamish, just cut it in half. Ugh!

There are various methods you can use to try to prevent slug damage. For example, put some beer traps nearby, scatter some broken egg-shells around, and surround growing area with gravel etc.


WHAT SALAD LEAF CROPS TO GROW FOR AUTUMN & WINTER

American cress (land cress, upland cress)
Very hardy, but best to give some protection if severe frosts are predicted, or we have any long cold spells. Tastes like watercress and will grow in any soil type, but prefers it kept on the moist side.

Salad burnet
Grows in most soils. Prefers it to be on the chalky side. Sow outside from April - July. It is a hardy perennial, but I think if you want to grow it for salad use, it is best to treat it as a bi-ennial. Will stay green through the winter.

Choy sum purple flowering
This, in my opinion, is a good autumn salad addition, not winter, because as the weather cools the leaves and stems turn purple, or tinged purple and it has a pleasant nutty flavour. It can survive the winter under protection, but is generally at its best during October and November.

Greek cress
Peppery flavoured salad leaf with flat dissected leaves. Grows best as a spring crop, but also grows quite well in the autumn and will survive most winters if grown under protection. Although grown in polytunnels I have found that when there is a frost it needs extra protection, so I cover it with a layer of fleece. However, I have found it is important not to leave the fleece on for more than a day if possible, otherwise it will start to rot very quickly. You will find the leaves start to go glassy.

Red Russian kale
Sow from July - early September. It has a good flavour, especially the young leaves. It can be grown outside or under protection. The leaves are more tender and better for salad use - especially when the plants are older in the spring - if grown under protection. But it does fine outside and the leaves redden up more outside. Watch out for aphids in any mild spells, particularly under protection and in the spring.

Lambs lettuce
The hardiest and tastiest variety of lambs lettuce to grow, as far as I am concerned is verte de cambrai, although I have got hold of another variety called vally. This is apparently very similar, but I haven't had the chance to grow it yet to find out what its growing habits are and what it tastes like. Grow in a sunny spot.

Chinese mustard green-in-snow
Probably the best winter mustard to grow although I rate suehlihung just as good. Has attractive deep green leaf.

Chinese mustard red giant
Another reliable winter hardy mustard. Leaves can become deep red in the coolest months - very attractive. Can be grown year-round, but loses its colour in the summer.

Chinese mustard suehlihung
Good attractive all year round salad leaf addition. It has long serrated leaves. I have only grown this one in my tunnels, but I find it very winter hardy and have sown this up to middle of October successfully.

Pak choi joi choi
I have already written about this one, but it certainly is worth growing as a winter salad. Does especially well under protection.

Leaf radish saisai
Its leaves have a pleasant, slightly peppery, radish flavour. Good year-round salad leaf. Survives the winter well under protection.

There are other leaves you could try to grow as winter salads, but these are the ones I have had most success with and think worth giving a try.

I have had great success with growing all these salad leaves in the Thames Valley through the winter, except choy sum and greek cress which are less reliable. Choy sum makes a good decorative salad addition up to Christmas if you are lucky - unless we get a very mild winter.


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