Gardens: growing salad

Salad days: rows of young beetroot. Photograph: Tim Gainey/Alamy

Sowing in succession brings a constant supply of perfect salad leaves all summer. The secret is to pace yourself

fter a three-week stretch away at the Chelsea Flower Show, which was surreal and wonderful in equal measure, I returned home to an altered reality. We had moved out of the house to make way for renovations. As the cab pulled up the hill from the station, it was clear to see that the next few months would be far from peaceful.

Our home was now a cave with stripped-back plaster and a dirt floor, while the caravan, which we’d left in a neatly mown yard, was surrounded by building materials and machinery.

I had carefully fenced off the garden from the building works so it could serve as an oasis.

There, I will be able to pull aside the temporary fencing and step into a world unaffected by the upheaval: irises fluttering on the breeze and the asparagus bed blazing with Californian poppies, the crop grown out now and feeding the roots for the summer.

That first night back we picked the last spears of the season and had our first bowl of salad, put the charcoal on the burner and then settled back into reality.

It had taken some careful organisation to build in a three-week gap at the beginning of the growing season and I was rather pleased that the early salad, sown in mid-April, was timed to perfection. The leaves were young but not rushed, so they were crunchy and full of life.

There was red-frilled mustard, hot and tasting curiously of new potatoes, buttery baby chard and the first hit from volunteer wild rocket seedlings that made it through the winter from an autumn germination.

Getting fresh: the colourful stems of Swiss chard.
Getting fresh: the colourful stems of Swiss chard. Photograph: Alamy

But three weeks in May can make quite a dent later in the season if you do not act quickly. The hardy vegetables such as beetroot and chard which were sown while there was still risk of frost, were thick in their rows and needed thinning.

Tender climbing beans and direct-sown courgettes had to go in now that the soil had warmed. And with summer ahead it was time to re-sow vegetables that needed to be drilled in succession to keep an even supply and the salad bowls filled.

Succession is easy to plan for the first part of summer, but as soon as you have salad in your bowl and broad beans for the picking, it is easy to imagine that it will be this way for weeks.

If you have sown too much, you may already have a glut and never want to see mizuna again. But a row of perfectly judged vegetables can be eaten in a fraction of the time it has taken to grow them.

I try to keep up a weekly cycle of sowing a half-row here, another half-row there. Little and often means that you are not having to set big chunks of time aside when the garden is demanding attention elsewhere.

Learn to pace yourself, to feel the two- to three-week gaps that are necessary between sowings of lettuce, and to stagger the half-rows of dill and coriander so that you are never without fresh leaves.

Get growing

To avoid leaf crops bolting and running to seed, keep them well watered during dry periods. Watering by hand and with a can helps to administer the water where it is most needed.

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