Salad vegetables

The essence of salad vegetables is that they are eaten raw, when they are cool, refreshing and crisp – so you need to grow your own for best results.

Home-grown salad vegetables fall into two groups – the easy-to-grow type and the ones which are more time consuming. Lettuces, spring onions and radishes belong to the first category: they are quick growing and easy to care for. If planted at regular intervals, they provide a succession of crops which make a delicious basis for fresh salads all summer long.

The other group of salad vegetables – celery, cucumber and tomatoes – requires more attention. Cucumbers and tomatoes can be grown successfully outdoors but many people prefer growing them in a greenhouse. However, all these crops are rewarding to grow – there’s nothing quite like picking your own lettuces, tomatoes or cucumbers for a salad just five minutes before you sit down to eat.

LETTUCE

There’s room for lettuces in almost every garden. One of the easiest vegetables to grow, they do well in almost any soil. With just a little know-how you can ensure a regular supply throughout the year. By planting a mixture of varieties you can also have a choice of taste and texture.

Types of lettuce

There are four different types of lettuce, each with slightly different growing requirements. Cabbage butterhead “is round like a cabbage with smooth, spreading leaves. Quick to mature, it is ex-ceptionally easy to grow. Cabbage crisphead resembles the butterhead type. It has large hearts of crisp, curled leaves. A popular variety is ‘Iceberg’.

Soil requirements

Lettuces have three basic needs: good soil, plenty of light and sufficient moisture. The soil must be moist but well drained, with plenty of organic matter. Lettuces won’t thrive in a very acid soil.

Choose a sunny or lightly shaded site. Prepare it the previous autumn by digging in well-rotted garden compost or manure. This preparation is essential for a sand or clay soil. Shortly before sowing or planting, rake in a general purpose fertilizer.

Sowing and planting

For a lettuce crop from early summer to mid autumn, make the first outdoor sowing in early or mid spring (depending on where you live), and continue at two-weekly intervals until the end of mid summer to ensure a steady supply. Strips or trays If you have room for only a few lettuces, it is worth buying strips or trays of young plants from a garden centre.

Transplant the young plants into the prepared bed. Set each plant carefully into a hole deep enough to take the roots without overcrowding or crushing them. Water them in well after planting. From seed under glass Sow seed in plastic multi cells or modules or small compost-filled pots, two seeds to each pot, and water well. Keep the pots or trays in a cold frame or unheated greenhouse. After germination remove the weaker of the two seedlings and harden off the plants by lifting the lid off the cold frame for a few hours each day, or by increasing ventilation in the greenhouse. (This will gradually accustom the tender seedlings to the outside world.)

When they are large enough to handle, carefully transplant them to their final rows, setting them about 30cm (1ft) apart. From seed outdoors Alternatively, sow the seeds outdoors, straight into the permanent bed. Sow the seed thinly in shallow furrows about 10-12mm (Viin) deep and about 30cm (1ft) apart. Thin the seedlings to 7.5cm (3in) apart when they are large enough to handle, then thin again when the remaining plants are touching.

Always keep young plants well watered, particularly during dry spells. Hoc lightly between the plants to keep down the weeds.

Saving space

There are two other ways of growing lettuce if space is at a premium. The leaf lettuce technique provides the greatest crop in the shortest time possible. Use a cos variety and sow seeds at 2.5cm (lin) intervals in rows 10cm (4in) apart. Begin in mid spring and sow every two weeks until the end of late spring. Do not thin – this method is designed to produce a block of tightly packed lettuces.

Cut the leaves for the first time when they are 10-13cm (4-5in) high, leaving at least 2.5cm (lin) of the stumps above the ground to produce a second crop about six weeks later. The recommended variety to grow is ‘Valmaine’. Intercropping In a small garden, lettuces can be planted in between slower-maturing vegetables such as parsnips. The lettuces will be out of the ground before the other crop needs the space. You can also grow lettuces between roses or other shrubs in the flowerbed.

Extended growing season

It is possible to have a supply of lettuces throughout the autumn and winter. You need a green- house, cold frame or cloches for winter maturing varieties and the best quality plants, but in sheltered gardens some varieties can be overwintered without protection. Growing lettuces under glass outside their natural season is called forcing. Varieties specially bred for this purpose are mostly the butterhead type. Late autumn/early winter crop Sow a forcing variety, such as ‘Kwiek’ or ‘Diamant*, in a prepared seedbed in the open, not later than the first week of late summer. Move the seedlings to a cold frame in early autumn when they are established. Or leave the seedlings where they are, but thin to 30cm (12in) apart and cover with cloches in early autumn. The crop should be ready in late autumn or early winter. Overwintered lettuces lor early spring lettuce grown outdoors sow seeds in late summer or early autumn, then thin in mid autumn to one every 7.5cm (3in). If you lose some because of severe weather, there will still be enough left for a good crop. Thin again in early spring to 30cm (12in) apart. They will be read)’ to cut in mid or late spring. Suitable varieties are ‘Winter Density ‘Valdor’ and ‘Arctic King*.

Harvesting

Lettuces are ready to eat as soon as a firm heart has formed: tesr by pressing the top of the plant gently. Use a sharp knife to cut each lettuce away from its lower stem and leaves, or pull up the whole plant. Compost discarded leaves and remains.

Pick the leaves of loose-leaf varieties as and when you need them.

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