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Salads to grow in summer

Posted in All Gardening Advice, Vegetables and Fruit, August, on 28th March 2011

Growing summer salads in August will help to extend the delicious taste of salad.  Once you hit August, there's not much you can sow in the kitchen garden for eating this year, but salads are an exception. Seed sown into the ground in the next couple of weeks will crop right through autumn and into winter.

There are three ways to assemble a delicious salad. The first is to go on a leaf safari, basket in hand, and pick 10 or 15 different kinds, contrasting in flavour, colour and texture - the king of this sort of salad is Christopher Lloyd. Done right, every mouthful tastes different - a touch of pungent, celery-like lovage, a bit of peppy mustard, some mildy cabbagey mizuna - but never too much of any one flavour .

The second type of salad has fewer flavours, in order to complement another dish you're cooking. It's the side issue, rather than the main thing, but no less important for that. Frances Smith of Appledore, the doyenne of unusual salads, taught me an invaluable tip: pick a leaf from three or four salad plants and roll them up in a tight cigar. Take a few bites and imagine it combined with the rest of your supper. You'll know immediately if you've got the combination of tastes right.

Finally there is the salad as the whole meal - the Caesar, the Niçoise and their ilk. For these you need crunch, which only a hearting lettuce (Cos or Iceberg types) guarantee.

Sowing salad seeds in August

This is the first bit of gardening I'll do on my return from holiday. Most of the salad plants I had a month ago will have suffered from my absence. So I will hack my chaotic chives, mint, parsley and lovage right to the ground. Within a couple of weeks they'll have begun to sprout young leaves, which is when the flavours are at their best.

Then I'll sow five cut-and-come-again salad leaves to add bulk to the flavours of the herbaceous and shrubby plants above. These are the ones you cut an inch above the ground, leaving the root where it is so that in a week or two they sprout delicious, tender new leaves for you to harvest again. My top variety is 'Mizuna', a tasty, cabbagey flavour with a bit of pepper on top. The pretty upstanding leaf has a serrated edge and is the easiest to grow, slowest to bolt and most generous of any salad plant. You'll be eating it in four or five weeks' time from an August sowing.

Next is 'Red Giant Mustard', a plant so punchy that you need add only very little to a salad. I love these deep crimson leaves, best when they're the size of a child's palm. Keep picking them, a little every week or two, and these may even survive into the spring.

My third choice would be corn salad, also known as mache or lamb's lettuce. I love its mild sweetness. The flavour reminds me of the fresh hazelnuts that are ripening in our woods at much the same time. I dry-roast the nuts and coarsely chop them into a salad of these leaves, combining them with a dressing made with the yolk of hard-boiled egg. Now is also the time to sow 'Salad Rocket', rather than the spring, because it will thrive in the cooler temperatures and lower light levels.

'Green Salad Bowl' lettuce will be my main cut-and-come-again crop. It has a hugely long harvesting season, is very hardy and has an excellent flavour and beautiful bright-green leaf.

I also want one truly crunchy lettuce for eating Caesar salads late in the year, and this has to be 'Black Seeded Simpson'. This superb American variety looks like something between a Cos lettuce (but is much hardier) and a crinkly Savoy cabbage. It has one of the best sweet, watery and lettucey tastes and that essential texture.

This is the month when the garden is full of tomatoes, cucumbers, courgettes and beans and the constant harvesting becomes rather overwhelming. But don't give up on sowing quite yet. Get a few salad packets in the ground now to stretch out the summer's pleasures.