First the good news – salad leaves are easy to grow.
They also have a long season, so you can still enjoy eating them into autumn.
Growing your own is immensely satisfying and beats the bagged supermarket offerings on price and flavour.
Many salad leaves can contribute to healthy diets because they contain vitamins and minerals. Besides vitamin C and potassium, they have iron and calcium which keeps bones and blood healthy. They also offer beta-carotene, an antioxidant, and fibre.
Eating a dessert bowl of salad leaves (80g) is equivalent to one of your five-a-day helpings of fruit and veg.
Studies have shown that gardening activities like growing salad leaves can boost physical activity levels and psychological wellbeing.
Looking after plants can be relaxing, providing a sense of peace and calm. Because it’s about producing something worthwhile, it’s an activity that can make us feel content and improve our outlook and quality of life.
Psychologists say gardens provide opportunities for feeling in a completely different world, one that is restful and restorative.
Plus, working outside in the sunshine can top-up our Vitamin D and reduce blood pressure and stress hormone levels.
Wait until mid to late spring before sowing salad leaves direct into your garden soil. By then the soil should be warm enough for the seeds to germinate. If frosts are forecast, give your seedlings protection with a cloche (tip: make your own – cut a plastic bottle in half, use without the cap).
Create a shallow 1cm deep trench, known as a drill, using a hoe or trowel, and then water it. Sow your salad seeds along the drill and then gently rake back the soil to cover them. Don’t forget to stick in a label with the crop name.
To have a succession of leaves to pick, sow seeds a few at a time in short rows. Then after a couple of weeks, sow some more.
Alternatively, you can sow seeds in trays or modules and then transplant them after about three or four weeks.
As seedlings appear, thin them out to give space to grow. Pull up weeds that grow between rows as this will reduce the likelihood of pests and diseases.
Because salad crops have small root systems, water regularly to keep soil moist. Scrimping on water can affect the taste of your crop and cause it to run to seed.
In very hot weather, water at the beginning or end of the day to avoid the sun scorching leaves.
Some crops, like mizuna, can be sown in late summer and, if protected, keep you supplied through the winter.
If your growing space is limited, salad leaves, such as rocket or corn salad, can be successfully grown in containers.
Sow seeds about 2.5cm apart in multi-purpose compost. Make sure they are watered regularly as pots are more likely to dry out.
Leaves will be ready for cutting six to eight weeks after sowing. For cut-and-come-again crops, cut leaves when they reach 10cms. By picking a few leaves from each plant, you will encourage more growth and have a succession of harvests over several weeks.
Salad leaves are best used fresh, so pick them just before you want to eat.
Slimy slugs and snails can target salad seedlings so it’s worth defending them. Barriers are one option and so is going out at night to hunt them with a torch.
During a wet and cold spell, grey mould or botrytis may appear. Decent spacing between plants can prevent this.
Flea beetles can attack rocket. If so, cover plants with fleece or fine mesh.
Corn salad, known also as lamb’s lettuce, can cope with frost and therefore can be sown in spring or autumn for year-round cropping.
Rocket has a peppery taste and can grow from late spring to early winter. Ideal cut-and-come-again crop.
With its mild mustard flavour, mizuna can be used in salads or cooked. A prolific grower.
Mustard greens come in assorted colours, such as red and purple, and can provide a real kick to salads.