Baby salad leaves are tasty and nutritious, quick and easy to grow. Because you can harvest the leaves from each plant three or four times they provide a bumper harvest for the space they take up. They are a perfect crop for children to grow because they are very colourful, grow quickly and can regenerate in a seemingly magical way.
Sowing directly into the soil is the simplest and cheapest way to grow vegetables. Soil preparation is key to reaping a good harvest. The depth you need to plant the seeds at will be stated on the packet. The general rule is to make a seed drill three times the depth of the dimension of the seeds you are planting.
Sow your seeds in a straight line. Use a long cane or a taut piece of string wrapped around two sticks pushed into the ground each end of your drill to act as a guide. It is much easier to distinguish weeds from your seedlings if you grow them in a straight line. Your crop will have identical leaves; the weeds will probably have many different leaf shapes.
Don’t sow into cold, wet soil; wait until the weather improves. Every spring is different and spring comes to different parts of the World at different times so it is very difficult to be prescriptive about exactly when to sow seeds. Salad crops planted too early will bolt if the weather is cold.
Water seeds with a fine rose on your watering can; a torrent of water will wash them away.
If you plant plugs that are either shop-bought or home-grown, your crop will get off to a better start when planted outside and you won’t have the job of thinning your seedlings which will save time and wastage. Space the plugs in a way that will give them plenty of room to grow.
It is still important for you to keep the plot clear of weeds so that your salad plants don’t have to compete with them.
Divide the packet of seeds into three or four and plant each batch every week for three or four weeks. This is called succession sowing and will give you a longer harvesting season rather than a glut at one time. Cut the salad leaves regularly to encourage more growth.
Protect you seeds and tender, young plants from cold winds, mice and birds with cloches. These mini greenhouses will trap the Sun’s warmth which will encourage germination and growth.
Your salad crops can be grown through the winter and early spring in a greenhouse or cold frame.
If you have no garden, you can grow cut-and-come-again salads in a box or large flower pot on a window sill in a cool room. In this way they can be grown through the summer or winter. This will be a very easy way for a child to grow a crop. It will be small and manageable.
The crops to choose for the winter months could be colourful loose-leafed lettuces, salad rocket, oriental mustards, mizuna, land cress, lamb’s lettuce or pak choi. In the summer, in addition, you can grow baby spinach, mibuna and kale. In summer your plants will take about four weeks to grow good-sized leaves but when the days are shorter probably about six.
The leaves can be used in salads, sandwiches, stir fries and home-made soups so children can easily take their own crops to school in their packed lunch. The sweeter varieties rather than the spicier ones would be a better choice for a child’s palate.
The smaller the leaf when harvested, the sweeter it will be. Left to grow bigger, the taste will be stronger. Harvest with scissors so that you will take only the leaves you want and not damage the others. Water the stalks, and new shoots will soon start to appear. After a few harvests the plants won’t re-grow, but if you have employed succession sowing you should have a new crop ready to harvest.