Growing your salad garden

Anyone who’s older than about 40 may remember the days when there was only one kind of lettuce in the garden. It was a type of iceberg – dense, heavy-hearted and bland – and was served by health-conscious mothers as a salad with tomatoes and chopped up hard-boiled egg. Some really adventurous mums would add tinned pineapple.

Even in these times of retro-style celebration, you wouldn’t get away with serving a salad like that. Apart from the fact that hard-boiled eggs would be considered beneath one’s dignity unless accompanied by cos, anchovy and bacon with a Caesar dressing, having one type of lettuce no longer cuts the mustard.

There are so many varieties of lettuces available now that planting has become something of a scientific undertaking. Not only do you have to decide what to grow, how many to grow, how often to plant, how to harvest and how to store, but you must be able to name them on demand and talk with authority on their culinary properties to impress your guests.

Seriously, growing a wide variety of greens does make for a more interesting salad. Some have very distinct flavours and textures, and once you’ve tried a few you can narrow down your repeat plantings to the varieties you really enjoy.

What are now more common lettuces – oak leaf, frillice, buttercrunch, cos – can still be the mainstay of the garden. Depending on the size of your family and how keen they are on greens, stagger your planting so you always have enough for about a week’s eating. And if they get away on you and you begin to feel overwhelmed, remember you can eat them when they’re quite small.

Annual leaves

Throw some of these lettuce varieties into the mix:

Argulua (perennial rocket) Rocket is almost as common as lettuce these days and just as essential. It should taste spicy and piquant but it can also be bitter, so pick the tender leaves. Don’t panic when it flowers – the blooms are edible too. It likes semi-shade and moist soil and you can plant successive crops through autumn.

Cress (American upland) This also likes damp and shady conditions, and if you treat it right it’ll grow well over winter. Cress has a lovely mustard taste and you can steam it lightly and eat it as a vegetable.

Endive Give endive lots of sun and well-drained soil and it’ll give you lots of leaves with very few demands. The leaves are rich and firm, so pick them young. They’ll be ready about three months after planting.

oizuna This trendy annual is fast-growing and likes moist, sunny soil. Dose it with something like Yates’ new Dynamic Lifter Plus – no, it’s not a chap with lots of energy and big muscles! – to boost the foliage development and it’ll start feeding you in about three weeks. Do the same for its close relative mibuna, which is a little more strongly flavoured.

Pea shoots Also called dau miu, the tender tips off young pea shoots are sweet and succulent.

Tat soi An Asian cabbage with, yes, a cabbage flavour. If that sounds scary, use it only when it’s very young and the flavour is more subtle. It certainly adds a new taste twist to your salad.

Red mustard These young leaves have a subtle yet sharp mustard flavour and work well with mizuna and other young leaves. They’re red on the top side and green underneath, so you can colour co-ordinate your salad for a striking addition to dinner.

Lambs lettuce Also known as corn salad, these wee leaves are sweet, smooth and delicate. They’re also high in vitamin C, some B vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids.

Frisée These blanched leaves of finely curled endive are slightly bitter and give mesclun mixes a more interesting look.

Watercress Don’t we just love this stuff? The dark green, peppery leaves add a wonderful spiciness to salads and sandwiches.

Storage and prep

The whole point of growing greens is to refrain from storing them, but sometimes this is unavoidable.

  • Refrigerate leaves in plastic bags or in the crisper. Don’t pack them in, they shouldn’t be squashed.

  • Store at 2 to 5°C with a relative humidity of 90 to 100%. The best storage temperature is 0°C, but it’s safer to use a slightly higher temperature so they don’t freeze.

  • If you’ve picked a whole lettuce with its roots still on, keep it in a jar with the roots in the water and out of the sun – don’t refrigerate it.

  • Greens are ethylene-sensitive, so store them away from ethylene-producing fruits and vegetables such as apples, avocados, bananas, melons, peaches, pears and tomatoes.

  • You’ll need to wash your leaves before you eat them. Try soaking greens for a few minutes in warm water and then refrigerate for about 15 minutes to freshen them up before serving and eating them.

Top tip

When you’re buying your seeds and seedlings, either plant them with their labels so you can identify them later, or sketch a rough garden plan with each row identified.

Garden safari season

It’s only a couple of weeks until garden festival season kicks off and one of the earliest will be the Powerco Taranaki Garden Spectacular in and around New Plymouth from october 28 to November 6. The 10-day festival showcases some of New Zealand’s best private and public gardens, big country parks, intimate inner city potagers, subtropical and rainforest gardens. The events programme includes jazz and wine in gardens, a landscape design project, guided walks and garden celebrity speakers.

Next off the blocks is the Kerikeri New World Rotary Garden Safari on october 29 and 30. If you’re a fan of tropical and subtropical design and planting, this is the one to go to. The garden styles include country, urban, native, courtyard and tropical. It’s also worth planning a visit to the town’s palm nurseries – a couple of which have spectacular show gardens.

The return of the Ellerslie International Flower Show isn’t until March next year, but with Egmont Seed Company now on board as the title sponsor, planning is well under way. oayor Bob Parker says the show further defines Christchurch as the Garden City, and is a key way for residents to get back to a sense of normality.

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