Seen at The Festival of the Tree

...if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden - Chinese proverb

Friday, 4 January 2013

Your Year in Salads

I'm starting the year with a shiny new propagator and some salad growing experiments* :) 

Quite a few of you have said you'd like to join in with the 52 Week Salad Challenge this year, so I've put together a guide today to help you get started and keep growing based on what we learnt during 2012. You may also like to look at last year's kick-off post. You'll see the Challenge is about growing salad leaves, what else accompanies them is up to you.

This post is designed to help get you started no matter what time of year or season it is where you are. Just find the relevant place in Step 3 and keep going!

Step 1: Define Your Boundaries

  • Decide what the Challenge means to you. It could simply be to grow something for every week this year, just  like I did. Or it could be to increase your crops (production and/or variety), or to try some new flavours or techniques. It's entirely up to you.
  • Identify where you're going to grow your salad through the year. We've proven salads can be grown year-round in the smallest of spaces, so anyone can join in. Setting aside the space is the start - personally I've found I prefer growing salads in a small space at home rather than on the wide open spaces of the allotment. Picking a bowlful of fresh leaves and herbs 5 minutes before tea is a pleasure!
  • Assemble your resources. If you have a greenhouse or polytunnel, then you're ahead of the game :) If not, then look at the possibilities that windowsills, conservatories, cloches, coldframes and other protection such as garden fleece offer to help extend the cropping season. Decide what pots and containers (if any) you need for salad growing. You may also be able to improvise - I did most of my windowsill growing last year using old supermarket vegetable trays. I didn't have the pictured swanky propagator then...
  • Define your indoor/outdoor growing seasons. What's possible varies widely depending on where you live. The key factors are light (more than 10 hours per day), temperature (minimum 5 degrees for growth and 10 degrees Celsius for salad leaf germination) plus lack of frosts. Those of you in the UK will find my What's the Weather for Salad? post useful to work out the possibilities for where you are.
Tip: I've found even the most expensive way of growing - in containers using newly purchased seed and peat-free growing medium + shop-bought organic feeds - is still a fraction of the cost of buying bagged salads. I'm also eating a wider variety of tastier leaves and I've seen that washed, picked mixed leaves kept in a bag in the salad crisper part of the fridge last much longer than their supermarket cousins.

Step 2: Decide What You'd Like to Grow

Grow what you like to eat, but also don't be afraid to experiment with new leaves and flavours. If you're stuck for ideas have a look at our Tried and Trusted: Lettuces and Tried and Trusted: Other Leaves. All as recommended by 2012's Salad Challengers :)

Tip: Growing microgreens and shoots  are a great way of using up packets of opened seeds from last year e.g. peas, beans, radishes, leeks, coriander. NB these aren't recommended for sprouting owing to the possibility of fungicides and other seed treatments used during processing. Store cupboard peas, beans and other pulses can be used for sprouting and shoot growing at a fraction of the cost of buying specialist seed marketed for these purposes.

Step 3: Your Growing Year

Assumptions:
  • You're starting with no salad leaves growing at this point. What you can do depends on the time of the year you're reading this (see the key times below) and the indoor/outdoor growing seasons you've worked out for yourself.
  • Apart from the growing options outlined for low temperatures and light, I'm assuming you'll be growing and picking salads using the picking method advocated by Charles Dowding. This doesn't rely on lots of successional sowing (which I've failed at comprehensively, despite the best of intentions), but instead has a few key times for sowing. It also maximises the cropping period for each batch of crops from a few weeks into several months (e.g. I managed July to early November last year for my 'summer' cropping)
  • If you don't feel picking is for you - or in addition - you might like to try the technique described by Sally Nex for growing mixed leaves in pots. This means you'll continue with your weekly sowings and need a minimum of 3 decent sized pots.
When you have low temperatures and light, such as we get in winter, try indoor growing techniques such as sprouting seeds plus growing microgreens and/or shoots such as peas. Even with windowsill growing you'll be able to produce something for your salad within a few days (sprouted seeds) and you should be able to provide a full salad for two people within a few weeks. Using a mixture of the techniques and a variety of seeds will give you lots of flavour too. The possibilities using sprouted seeds were a surprise to many of us, so you may find my Sprouted Seeds Fact Sheet helpful.

Tip: Try to get into the routine of starting batches of sprouted seeds twice a week (I start mine on Sundays and Wednesdays) and microgreens or shoots on a weekly basis (Sundays for me).

NB: The seed packets of some salad mixtures and herbs claim they can be grown year-round for 'baby leaves'. We had success with growing rocket and Thompson & Morgan's 'Speedy Salad' mix in washing up bowls and similar large containers in 2012. I'm trying out chervil this year and other Salad Challengers are trying Sarah Raven's 'Winter Salad Mix' with some success so far. Therefore, claims found on other packets/seed catalogues are worth a try.

When you have a minimum of 10 hours daylight in late winter/early spring, this is your starting gun for sowing seeds under cover, in earnest. For me this comes in mid February. I won't be cropping from these sowings until late April or May (and then into June/July), so the low light/temperature sowing and growing regime also continues until then. Salads for outdoor cropping can be sown under cover in March/April (early to mid spring).

After your last frost in May/June, (late spring/early summer) you can safely transplant out your carefully nurtured seedlings which will crop earlier than any sowings made outdoors now. You will still need to sow outdoors (or in modules if you prefer not to thin plants out) at this time to ensure you have leaves for mid to late summer and into the autumn.

August/September time (late summer/early autumn) is the key time for sowing salad leaves for winter picking - mainly under protection. This is to ensure there's enough growth to provide enough leaves before low light and temperature levels (late October for me) grinds everything to a halt. My Last Call for Winter Salads post shows you a selection of leaves and herbs which can be grown/picked over winter. 

From October/November onwards (late autumn/early winter - depending on your local climate and light) you should be able to continue picking your summer salads until the first frosts (or later if you can grow under protection). Harvests from these will get smaller and smaller and you will need to increase pickings from your late summer/autumn sowings. Any shortfall in cropping can be fixed by starting the low temperature/light approach as described above again.

And so (or is that sow?) on...

Step 4: If everything fails...

Don't worry and keep going! We had great early success in 2012 and thought April onwards would be a breeze with the onset of the warmer weather. We then watched as it poured with rain for weeks and sowing after sowing got chomped away by a bevvy of slugs and snails. If things go wrong or you miss a key time, you can easily get back on track again by making more sowings and by looking at my Cheat's Guide to Salad Growing to plug the gap. Or, if you have particular plot problems you may find my Salads for Awkward Situations series helpful:
And if those pesky pests or dread diseases do strike, here's a guide to what to do.

Step 5: Good Luck and let me know how you get on! I'll be setting up some Salad Days posts for you to join in, or you can join me over on Twitter for a #saladchat. You may also like to look at my 52 Week Salad Challenge Page for the full list of salad posts I've written thus far. It's a mine of information!

* = I'm testing propagator protected pea shoot growing times vs non-propagator protected ones, plus whether it's possible to grow 'Bull's Blood' beet leaves along the same lines as pea shoots. There's more to come on these experiments in a later post.

12 comments:

  1. Wow! I have the very same propagator! It's awesome isn't it!! I continuously sow salad all year too. I find it varies month to month on how well I sow the leaves and how well I look after them! Every now and again I will clear things down completely and just start again. I like to have some growing in my kitchen constantly then in the summer also have some up at the allotment - different varieties work better up there than at home. Really happy to have found a fellow salad grower! I thought maybe it was just an odd obsession I have! I started a new load of seeds in December. Maybe I should join the challenge too?

    Your guide is really useful :) Thanks for sharing.
    Anna B

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  2. what a great summary - no excuses at all now! time to sort out my seeds...:)

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  3. Really like the look of that propagator. Will look forward to your experiment results.

    Great Summary BTW

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  4. Okay, I'm in! My efforts for last year were somewhat thwarted by our mollusc friends. So, this year I'm planning on using a plastic propagator in the greenhouse once the seeds have germinated indoors for early season leaves and growing in an enamel bread bin once it's warmed up outside.

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  5. Yay! You've decided to do it again this year.

    I'll get on with the dressings I promised, but my computer died, so I had nothing to post on, but for this month for sure.

    Thanks for hosting it again this year

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  6. Digtheoutside - it would be fab to have you join in this year :)

    Lu - I need to sort mine out too. I think a seed giveaway may follow...

    Bren - the Bull's Blood experiment is especially for you - I'll link to you properly when I do the more detailed post.

    SVG - hurray! Most of us were thwarted by molluscs last year. I like the sound of your breadbin :)

    ediblethings - that's great! Sorry to hear about your computer - I was thinking you'd been a bit quiet lately. I'm planning on a seed giveaway soon of my seed tin spares. I'll be sure to let you and Carl know so you can alert the Seedy Penpals :)

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  7. Great, thanks Michelle. There is going to be a new SPP very soon too, if you'd like to play.

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  8. Hi ediblethings - I have a seed mountain, so I'm having a long think about playing this time. I love Seedy Penpals, but I probably should play as a giver rather than receiver of seeds. Whether I can resist the lure of more only time will tell ;)

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  9. Started my new greens indoors on Christmas and still have my outdoor experiment going under over...joining in Monday with my Journal post

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  10. I'm in - and have just ordered Charles Dowding's book as an added resource and source of inspiration. Must get hold of some compost...

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  11. Hello, second attempt at comment so hope this goes through! Just to say you've inspired me to dig out the old sprouting seeds and pop them in a jam jar. Got some pea shoots going too. I like the sound of the 52 week challenge, I'm prone to seeing a glut of lettuce then not eating any of it....

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  12. Donna - fab, Mr Linky will be ready for you on Friday 25th January :)

    Janet - Charles Dowding's books are great and have helped me a lot over the past year. He has a great website and forum too. I had the privilege of interviewing him last year for this Challenge :)

    NMG - thanks so much for persisting and welcome! I'm so pleased to hear you've been inspired :)

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