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Salad Leaves: Organic Growing from Pot to Plot

Salad Leaves: Organic Growing from Pot to Plot

by Charles Dowding

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This compendium of practical methods for growing a wide variety of salads throughout the year will inspire you to grow your own greens, whether on a windowsill, in your garden, or on your allotment. Here is all the information you need for productive, healthy, and tasty salads. The subtleties of salad seasons and virtues of different leaves throughout the year are


This compendium of practical methods for growing a wide variety of salads throughout the year will inspire you to grow your own greens, whether on a windowsill, in your garden, or on your allotment. Here is all the information you need for productive, healthy, and tasty salads. The subtleties of salad seasons and virtues of different leaves throughout the year are discussed and there are delicious and imaginative recipes to try, exploiting the fantastic flavors, color, and vitality of home-grown salad leaves.

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"An essential book for every garden and kitchen."  —Nigel Slater, Observer Magazine

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Salad Leaves for All Seasons

Organic Growing from Pot to Plot

By Charles Dowding

Green Books Ltd

Copyright © 2010 Charles Dowding
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-907448-03-4


High Yields, Small Spaces, Special Methods

Learning new tricks

You do not need a large garden to grow good amounts of leaves. Small beds or containers can produce surprisingly large harvests, especially if they are in full light. Whatever the size of your growing area, the important thing is to make the most of it.


Many salad plants can be long-lived when they are correctly chosen for the season and well tended. This is a key aspect of successful growing, enabling you to enjoy high production from small areas. Which plants are grown and how they are picked is as important as your general sowing and growing techniques (see Chapter 2, pp.16–22 for more details) and careful choosing and tending of plants really can make even containers and window boxes capable of producing enough leaves to be a good asset to the table.

Sowing at the right moment also makes an important difference. The season, the moon and the weather all play a part and becoming more aware of their changes will bring you extra knowledge and health, not least from having more leaves to eat.


Keep your initial purchases small and simple. Catalogues and shops are full of expensive accessories that are not strictly necessary. The main things you will need are seed and/or plants, a container or bed to grow them in, some good compost, a watering-can and, above all, sufficient time to tend your plants on a regular basis. Once a growing space is set up, the main work is picking leaves.

Start in a small way, but also experiment with lots of different salad plants to see which ones grow best for you and provide leaves which you enjoy eating. Soon you will get the hang of managing an interesting range of plants at different times of year to keep those healthy harvests coming.


If there is room outside and you want plenty of leaves, think about a bed along the lines of those in Chapter 3, pp.23–30, which, over a trial season, produced around 1-2kg weekly of mixed leaves between late April and mid-October, then rather less until Christmas. Once the materials have been sourced, new beds can be constructed quite rapidly and in almost any location – on top of grass, gravel or paved areas. An open space is better than against a wall, because more light will give better growth.

In view of the productivity of well-tended salad plants, my advice to people with large gardens is often to scale down their salad area and manage it more tightly. Valuable compost can be concentrated on a smaller space and there is less weeding and watering to do.

Larger beds are useful for those plants needing lots of room to grow, such as the wide range of hearting plants. Study the book and plan a growing space to be in line with your intended harvests.

A single bed can be kept fully productive throughout the growing season by re-sowing or re-planting as soon as gaps appear. Check the information in Part Two, pp.68–77, to see which plants are coming into their period of most productive and healthy growth, according to the time of year.


Small spaces can profit from the use of large containers, which may even be quite shallow for salad, as long as they are well watered in dry weather. The large round lettuce pot in Chapter 4, p.34, which yields leaves for three months off a dozen plants, has a diameter of 62cm (25"), a depth of 22cm (9") and contains about forty litres of compost. Or look at the recycled plastic window boxes which measure one metre by 20cm and are 15cm deep (39"x 8"x 6"), hold 15 litres of compost and offer worthwhile yields of leaves for a long period (see Chapter 4, pp.31–8).

The small volumes of such containers compared with gardens and raised beds, means that good quality compost must be used, both to retain as much moisture as possible, and to provide enough nutrients for steady and significant growth. Organic composts are available to meet these criteria (see Resources) and I feel they are the best option for achieving wellbalanced, even growth and for highly nutritious leaves. Their nutrient levels can be topped up between crops with, for example, a few handfuls of comfrey and lucerne pellets; this avoids having to refill containers with new compost.


Best results come from appreciating which leaves grow best at which time of year. Growing plants in their right season will give you far more success than if you sow anything you fancy at any time of year. For example, spinach and lettuce grow best in the spring, purslane and basil require summer heat, endives and mizuna thrive in the autumn, while chicories, rocket and lamb's lettuce are hardy enough to provide leaves in most British winters.

A seasonal approach achieves more abundant harvests and healthier leaves, because insects that live off certain plants are only prevalent at certain times: avoid growing them in those periods and growth will be healthier.

An extra benefit of this approach is the constantly changing nature of your harvests. Salad is not the same old thing, day in day out, for months on end. April's leaves are quite different from August's, while many leaves in a bowl of late autumn salad, for example, are quite peculiar to that season and are suited to boosting your health as winter approaches.


With the changing seasons come frequent and fascinating changes in salad flavour. I have devoted a whole chapter to this subject, to whet your appetite and to illustrate the surprisingly large range of tastes to be had in a bowl of leaves.


The main benefit in growing your own leaves is that they are eaten fresh, firm and full of flavour. Organic methods help to achieve this: firstly for healthier plants, whose growth is easier to manage, and secondly to nourish you and your family or friends with extra-nutritious food. I outline ways of constructing or assembling beds of any size that are full of well- rotted manure, compost and soil, plus a few additions for extra trace elements.

Growing plants organically and in their right season should ensure that pests are mostly absent. Occasionally aphids will appear in the spring, before ladybirds arrive to eat them, and they can simply be washed off after picking the leaves. Slugs are more problematic in certain situations, such as enclosed yards with many walls, and I offer ideas for dealing with them. Pests and disease will always be with us, so we need to work out the best way of minimising their impact. Often this is achieved more successfully by understanding how they operate and gardening accordingly, than by gardening in a more random way and having to deal with major problems that arise.


Earthly influences are powerful, so sowing dates are governed firstly by the season and secondly by the weather.

Yet salad leaves are nearly all water, and water is massively influenced by the moon, suggesting that salad leaves grown according to the moon's phases will grow more strongly (see Chapter 7, pp.57–9).


Quality is the main reason for growing your own leaves. They will be different from most of those for sale, much livelier, brighter, crisper, more colourful and with plenty of exciting tastes to enjoy. You can create your own palette of salad flavours – have a look at Chapter 5, pp.39–46, and choose from its wide-ranging and amazingly long menu, and then use Chapter 10 (pp.78–92) to inspire you with ideas for eating them.


Vital Knowledge for Successful Harvests

Less sowing, more picking


Sow seeds thinly for picking individual leaves, more thickly for cutting rows or clumps

Wider spacings give healthier leaves over a longer time

Grow in best-quality compost, or surface-dress garden soil with good compost

For picking you can choose to cut baby leaves or pick mediumsized ones, depending on salad type and your preferences

Harvested leaves will keep for days if cool and moist

One sowing for each season can be enough to have leaves all the year round (fewer in winter)

Although this chapter is about how to grow salad plants, it is mainly and more importantly about how to pick their leaves, for the enjoyment of:

• Regular supplies of tasty salads

• Longer-lived plants, with less need for re-sowing


The two main choices are between sowing directly into beds or containers, or sowing into modules or seed trays on a window sill, conservatory or greenhouse bench (see Chapter 6, pp.47–56). Direct outdoor sowings are harder to space thinly and tend to emerge as dense rows of seedlings, which then do best if thinned out a little. Module-sown seed is easier to ration out, from one seed per module for hearting lettuce to four or five for spinach, mustards and most other salads. A third possibility is thick sowings into seed trays or boxes, usually indoors, to have crops of 'micro-leaves' cut as seedlings or picked as baby leaves for pretty garnishes (see Chapter 4, pp 31-8).

Always sow into well dampened soil or compost; because salad seed is mostly small, it is best sown very shallow, half a centimetre deep or even less in the case of lettuce. Deeper sowings usually take longer to emerge and may not come up at all. The seedbed needs to be continually damp for just a few days until seed is germinated. In dull, cool conditions this means no watering at all between sowing and the first spell of fine weather. In hot summer weather, daily watering with a gentle rose will probably be necessary. Then as seedlings turn into young plants with deeper roots, intervals between watering can be extended to three or four days, allowing the surface to dry out in between, which offers less encouragement to slugs and weed seeds.


Most salad plants grow quite large if given space and left unpicked, but well spaced plants that are regularly picked over can crop for long periods of up to three months, depending on the time of year. Medium-sized leaves have a different flavour from baby leaves and a firmer texture, which helps them to keep well.

Thicker sowings are suitable for cutting lots of baby leaves, but will crop for a shorter period and so you will need to re-sow more often to have a continuity of salad.

Each person needs to find the system of growing and cropping which best suits his or her taste, lifestyle and garden. I have tried many methods over the decades and have enjoyed most success with a combination of three aspects of growing, two of which are intimately related to the spacing of plants:

Spacing plants out more than usual, often 20-25cm (8-10") apart in all directions, enables them to live longer, develop more leaf colour, and makes picking easier. Spacing any wider gives no added benefit for salad leaves and also results in an increased growth of weeds as well as a need for extra water. Most effective use of space is made by planting 'on the square'. Imagine a grid of squares across your planting area: plant at all points where grid lines intersect, as well as into the centre of every square, to achieve an equal distance between plants in every direction (see below).

Picking a few of the outer leaves of all plants on a regular basis, rather than cutting across the top of them, ensures a steady supply of leaves for the table and a longer life for plants that, through careful handling and never being allowed to grow up into large specimens, continue producing tender small- to medium-sized leaves as though in a state of suspended adolescence.

Sowing or planting into well composted soil. Compost provides steady moisture and temperature, and sufficient nutrients as plants require them, all over a long period. Salad plants are not normally considered 'heavy feeders', unlike say tomatoes, but their growth is constant and is well adapted to the nutrients, water and energy that a good compost can provide.


New growth is always happening from tiny leaves at the centre of the plant, so these should be left unharmed. At the other extreme, older leaves at the extremities of the plant will continue enlarging until they mature, at a size dictated by the distance from other plants and by the time of year.

• The best quality and most viable leaves are those in between the baby ones at the centre and the large, mature, sometimes yellowing, diseased and slug-eaten ones at the edge. My advice is to keep picking the adolescent leaves, at intervals of two or three days to a fortnight from summer to winter, so that plants just keep on growing. Besides the advantage of having less sowing and replanting to do, there will be fewer slugs and healthier leaves, because you are always picking them before they reach their time of decay, which also affords less food and habitat for pests and disease.

• Baby leaves are more tender but are too fiddly to pick individually and are usually obtained by cutting rows of thickly sown seedlings. When doing this, it is difficult to avoid the presence of some yellowing and mildew-infected leaves which occur in densely sown rows, and cutting must be at a height that does not destroy the growing points of the smallest leaves. When using this method, I have found that certain plants live for less long, especially lettuce.

• A third possibility in larger gardens is to have rows with about 7-8cm between plants, and 30-40cm between rows (3" x 15"). The extra spacing allows for repeat cuttings of somewhat larger leaves, as well as allowing better longevity of certain salads such as rocket, chard and mizuna.


Leaves grown in healthy, fertile soil or compost, and carefully picked when moist, keep remarkably well in cool, damp conditions, such as in a polythene bag at the bottom of the fridge. Basically, they stay alive. A temperature of around 7°C (45°F) is ideal for preserving well-grown leaves in good condition for up to a week if need be. Just be sure to bag up only top quality leaves with no yellowing or mildew.

Should you pick dry, limp leaves, say in a warm afternoon or early evening, place them immediately in cold water so that they can soak up moisture and become firm again. Water is the basis of everything and leaves are nothing without it.


Until recently lettuce was often the only salad leaf eaten in Britain, and was usually grown into fine, dense hearts. Now we can buy seeds of many other leaves, but lettuce is often still the mainstay of salads because of an increasing range of attractive varieties available and because of its productivity, especially when the outer leaves are repeatedly picked off. Such treatment can keep a window box or container in production for two to three months at a time from the same plants, with a few leaves at each picking. The first leaves are always a little tricky because they lie close to the soil or compost. Be gentle with the plant at this stage, since it is so young and tender. Then each successive picking becomes easier as the lettuce stem gradually thickens and elongates above soil level, like a stumpy little tree. Finally, after up to three months (or much longer for lettuce which have been overwintered under cover) the squat stem will stretch upwards and become a flower stem, at which point its leaves become small and bitter, so the plant should be pulled out and replaced with something different, such as rocket or spinach.

Using this method of picking will provide a regular and quite even supply of leaves over long periods. Nearly all salad plants can be continually cropped like this and a nice benefit is that they grow faster in hot weather, just when you feel like eating more salad. You also need to think ahead and have young plants ready for when existing batches finally rise to seed. A second bed, container or space of some kind is useful for growing on the next batch of plants.


For salad days which go on and on:

• Start in late winter or early spring with lettuce, spinach, chard and some herbs, most of which will crop until July.

• Make another sowing in late May, to take over from the first batch in early July. The second sowing can be a mixture of lettuce, chard, summer purslane, basil, and the odd endive.

• In late July you could sow an autumn selection of endives, chicories, rocket, lettuce and various herbs.

• Lastly in late August sow the winter range of rocket, chicories, hardy lettuce, winter purslane, land cress and oriental leaves. See Part Two, pp.68–77 for more details.

Timing of sowings is important in late summer – see later chapters to find precise dates for each kind of leaf. A surprisingly large range of plants lend themselves to production of leaves in the winter season. Although growth is slower and harvests are smaller, flavours are more intense and the pleasure of having your own leaves when they are so rare is a great bonus in itself, apart from the delight of eating them.


Excerpted from Salad Leaves for All Seasons by Charles Dowding. Copyright © 2010 Charles Dowding. Excerpted by permission of Green Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Charles Dowding has been growing organic vegetables commercially for 30 years, without soil cultivation. He is the author of How to Grow Winter Vegetables and Organic Gardening. He also writes articles for several gardening publications, lectures, and runs courses on how best to look after soil and plants.

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