How To: Grow Your Own Fancy Salad Leaves

Equipment Needed: 2x plastic troughs, with trays. Compost. Watering can. Mixed salad seeds.
Care Requirements: Minimal.
Difficulty Level: Ridonkulously easy.

In our house, salad season officially starts when: a) the first batch of salad leaves are ready in the greenhouse, and b) it’s too damn warm to eat soup for lunch any more.

Both conditions have been met round about now, and as luck would have it – thanks to a bit of forward-planning – we’ve got a great big crop of lovely, fresh, healthy salad leaves ready to go at just as the temperature reaches the top-teens:

May 2016 salad leaves
Rocket and lettuce and mizuna and all sorts of tasty things… yum!

You too can grow your own fresh salads – and avoid having to splash the cash at the supermarket for those tiny bags of premium-priced leaves – all summer long.

Here’s how:

Firstly, buy yourself a few packets of mixed salad seed – there are plenty of varieties available, with flavours ranging from hot and spicy to mild and succulent – along with two deep, rectangular plastic troughs – around 15-20cm deep and 50-60 cm long would be ideal – along with trays to stand them on (quite important), and a bag of compost. Multi-purpose is fine, no need for seed compost, unless you have some spare.

Fill the first tray (not the second one, not yet) to around the 4/5 mark with compost. You can use seed compost for the final half inch or so, if you have some handy, but don’t worry if not, your leaves will grow just fine without. Water the compost well – give it a good drenching – and allow excess water to run through.

Sow (scatter / sprinkle) your mixed salad seed on the surface of the compost (I use an old Schwarz herb pot to help them scatter and spread out). Not too thickly, feel free to nudge them about a bit if they’re clumping together, but don’t worry about spacing them out exactly; the idea is to let your leaves grow wild and free.

Lightly cover the seed with another cm or so of compost. You probably won’t need to water the surface compost; the seeds should be able to soak up enough moisture from the main compost layer to germinate, but if in doubt, water with a very fine rose watering can, taking care not to disturb the seed.

Finally, stand the trough on its tray and leave it on a light, sunny window-sill or on a shelf in the greenhouse, then wait for the seeds to germinate.

April 2016 salad trays
Salad trays in full swing.

A couple of things to watch out for: sometimes the surface of the compost can dry out and form a crust, which the emerging seedlings can have difficulty breaking through. If that happens, gently dampen the compost with a fine-rose watering can and it should fall back into place around the seedlings.

Also, keep the compost reasonably moist, but not too wet – remember that even though the surface appears dry, the compost underneath can still be damp. The seedlings’ roots need both water and air to thrive, so keeping the compost too wet will actually be quite bad for them. As the plants get larger they’ll need more water, so keep an eye on the compost and top them up as needed; a good soaking every couple of days is better than a sprinkling here and there. If you’re going to be away for a while, give them an extra-good soak before you go, fill the tray that they’re sitting in with as much water as you can fit in it and hope for the best.

Once your leaves are well-established – with individual plants growing well, showing plenty of true leaves and basically looking like they’re just about ready to harvest – start off your second tray in exactly the same manner as the first. That way, by the time you’ve finished picking or cutting the leaves from the first tray the second trough-load should be ready to start harvesting.

April 2016 second salad tray
Tray #2 is coming along nicely, and I’ll need to re-sow pea shoots at some point too.

You should get three or four harvests from each tray – at least 60 or more portions – before the plants are exhausted; you’ll know when they’ve gone over, as the stems will be much tougher, or flowers will begin developing as the plants desperately try to reproduce. At this point you can empty the first tray – dump everything into the compost bin – then start that first trough off again with fresh compost and seed. With a bit of careful management and good timing you’ll be eating home-grown salad leaves all through the summer and into the Autumn.

Enjoy!

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