how to grow your own wedding: part 2
Read Part 1 of the Grow your own Wedding series.
In the first part of the Grow Your Own Wedding series, I outlined the plan of action, and how to sow your sweet peas. Now it's time to think about the great feast in the garden Bea is planning, and to sow the salads to feed the 120 people who are coming to the party. Even without a wedding to plan for, if you sow these annuals in the next couple of weeks, you'll have good food to eat right through the summer and into autumn.
The perfect salad has five strands – lettuce, salad leaves, salad herbs and flowers with a handful of raw vegetables – some radishes, peas, or bulb fennel. This takes the salad to a different realm from the pair of 'Little Gems' bought round the corner.
Lettuce provides the main bulk; it's big, generous, sweet and pretty, in green, red and crimson-black, and it will give you crunch. Add to this some powerful-tasting salad leaves, with extra-sharp flavours from coarsely chopped herbs. Give the whole thing a bit of substance from the veg and then top the lot with a scattering of colourful and tasty edible flowers. Then your salad is complete. For all five categories, choose the heat and drought-tolerant varieties.
I'm going to sow 'Black Seeded Simpson' (bright green and crumpled, with very crunchy leaves and excellent sweet taste), 'Reine de Glace' (the best of the Iceberg types, leaves are good raw or cooked), 'Red Sails' (like a red version of 'Black Seeded', pretty and slow to bolt in heat) and the deep crimson-leaved cos lettuce, 'Ruben', the most pert and crunchiest of the lot.
A small block of each of these will give us plenty. That's a mistake we all make – a little lettuce goes a long way – so don't sow too much all in one go. We won't get a full hearting lettuce in six weeks – they take more like 10 – but there will be plenty of outer leaves on these plants by then and the roots can remain in the ground to keep growing and give us salad to harvest for the rest of July and August.
Salad leaves to sow now
Most of the salad leaves I grow prefer it cool and moist – better sown in the early autumn for autumn, winter and early spring picking – but there are a few worth getting in now, which thrive in the hotter, brighter, drier months and won't immediately bolt. The first is summer purslane, a Turkish wild plant, with thick, juicy, succulent leaves in green, or yellow-green (the golden variety). I like the flavour of this – slightly fragrant. That's true of edible chrysanthemum, too. This is hugely popular as a vegetable, stir fry green and salad leaf in Japan and China, yet very few of us grow it here. It's quick to crop, has an interesting and distinctive chrysanthemum taste and a pretty leaf.
For peppery flavours, grow wild – not salad – rocket. This again comes from Turkey and Greece and will take hot, bright sun without immediately running up to flower. I'd add purple mizuna. The usual green-leaved form is pretty hopeless for growing from May until August – it bolts very quickly – but the purple seems better for summer. For a hot horseradish taste, grow mustard 'Golden Streaks' (with highly cut, frilly, acid-green leaves) or the strong-tasting 'Red Giant' (the biggest of the mustards, but in our trials last year, slow to bolt). I also love mustard 'Red Frills' which tastes distinctively of new potatoes.
When it's warm enough to have supper in the garden, it's time to sow basil. It hates cold nights and goes black in one night if temperatures plummet. 'Sweet Genovese' is the variety with the best flavour and texture, but I love lemon basil for salads, too.
If we want plenty of perennial herbs – mint, chives, lovage and fennel – for the wedding dinner, we need to give these their June haircut and feed. If you leave them growing merrily on through June, by July they'll all be in flower. The leaves and stems will coarsen and the flavour goes.
Cut them all right to the ground now, feed them with a potash-rich fertiliser (comfrey juice or Tomorite), and they'll reshoot within a few days to give you perfect tender leaves to pick right through July.
Do the same again in late July and you'll have these herbs to pick until almost Christmas.
A few veg
It's too late now to sow bulb fennel or shelling peas to go in Bea's salads, but for something sweet and succulent, sow a packet of peas for their tips and side shoots. There will be plenty of these to crop in six weeks' time. You can grow any of the quick-growing and prolific sugar snap or mange tout peas for this, or choose the self-supporting and hugely tendrilly, 'Greensage'. We now grow this variety specifically for its tips and tendrils.
Radish are the only other salad veg which, if sown now, will be ready in six weeks. I like the pink and hot 'Cherry Belle' and the pure white and crunchy 'Hailstone'. We've been sowing these every two to three weeks since January into gutters and harvesting them straight from there. Radishes don't need to fill space in the garden.
We've already sown borage and calendula 'Indian Prince' ready for the party, but today we'll add some nasturtium 'Black Velvet' and 'Tip Top Mahogany'. Sown now, they'll be in flower easily within six weeks and we can eat the baby leaves, flower buds, petals and seed pods. These taste of capers.
I'll sow all these into gutter pipes, sitting somewhere sheltered. This takes no more time than sowing direct, germination rates are higher and if you plant the seedlings out from their gutter once they've reached about 2in, the slugs and snails won't do the damage that they do with seedlings emerging under their noses.
A perfect finish
Finally – for the perfect salad – there is the dressing, the sixth dimension. For strongly flavoured salad make this from Dijon mustard, red wine vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, Maldon salt and freshly ground black pepper.
If you think about all these separate essential ingredients whenever you are buying or picking a salad, it will always look, taste and sound (you need that too), magnificent.