Seen at The Festival of the Tree

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

Friday, 5 October 2012

A Cheat's* Guide to Salad Growing

My emergency rocket supply - to replace the rather moribund plants I mentioned
a couple of  weeks ago
This post is for my new commenter Black and Tabby (welcome!) who asked after my Rich Pickings post recently:

Hi, have been following 'salad days' for a while but only just got my allotment up and running so only just sowing. Is it worth putting in a row of beetroot, or salad leaves now, or is it getting too cold for them. Appreciate any advice! #newbie

I gave some advice on what she could do then (too late now) in my comment reply, but her question and its timing got me thinking on what can be done when things don't quite go to plan e.g.

  • we don't get the timing right for a particular crop because other tasks got in the way
  • rampaging slugs and snails eat up everything in sight (how many posts and tweets have we had on that subject this year?!!!!), or some other plague or pestilence lays our salads low
  • our lovingly sown seeds don't come up (like my non-existent spinach this autumn)
  • there wasn't room at the time, but there's some space magically free now
  • supply your own growing calamity here 

When I've had a disaster previously, I've simply gone without if it's too late for resowing and grown something else. Doing The 52 Week Salad Challenge this year means I haven't given up this time. I've started thinking a bit more laterally and found the following alternatives...

Hang on to the spares

I grow a lot of my salad leaves in modules, then plant them out in their final positions after a few weeks growing. There's nearly always some plants left over, which I usually throw on the compost heap straight away. Hanging on to them for a while means any plants which don't take, or are wiped out, can be replaced quickly.

Beg, steal or borrow

Well, only 'begging' is really needed. Friends, family, fellow gardeners and even Freecycle (or some of the other recycling options mentioned here) may have spare plants of just the thing you're looking for. If you can do swapsies with any of your spares, that's even better :)

Be flexible and seek alternatives

There could be another crop which can be sown right now. For instance, we started The 52 Week Salad Challenge in January, and were able to provide something for the salad bowl within days - albeit not the entire bowlful - simply by sprouting seeds and growing microgreens. These options can be grown year-round.

It's also surprising what can be foraged for salad at any time of year. There's a full post on this subject to come.

Have a look at my Page under the What you can do and harvest this month heading to see what else can be sown and when (NB advice given applies to the UK only).

Do the supermarket sweep

Quite a few supermarkets sell potted herbs and/or 'living salad' designed to be used straight away, but they're really seedlings or small plants. These can be potted up or planted out instead to provide so much more than they're sold to do.

I'm doing precisely that with the rocket pictured at the top of this post - it's too late to re-sow my moribund rocket now, but the trayful I bought last week means I have plants which can be potted up and picked as if I'd sown them 3-4 weeks ago.

The choice available is fairly limited (I've found 3-4 lettuce varieties, salad rocket, a couple of mustards, basil, parsley, chives and mint depending on the time of the year), BUT they're usually a lot cheaper than other sources to buy at around £1 to £1.50 per item (2012 prices).

Try the postal option

A number of the seed companies also supply plants by post. If you've had a disaster, then you may have missed the boat with these as there's usually a very specific window for ordering and delivery. However, they're still worth a try.

There's usually more variety than the supermarket sweep option, but you'll probably have to buy a collection of a few varieties bundled together (e.g. winter salads, oriental leaves, lettuce collection) and you won't be able to pick and choose individual varieties or numbers to make up your own collection. Costs are around a fiver for 20 large plug plants (2012 prices) and you'll also have to take postage into account.

Find local supplies

Garden centres and DIY stores often sell strips of individual salad varieties (and also leaf mixtures) at key spring, summer and autumn planting times. Depending on who it is, the choice available may be more limited than the supermarket sweep or postal options. Availability can also be a bit hit or miss depending on supply and demand.

Prices also vary: e.g. £1.75 to £3.99 (2012 prices) for a strip of 10 lettuce plants, depending on the supplier or plant size. However, if you get your timing just right, there may be bargains to be had e.g. less than £1 each to clear the last few trays. Make sure they're not on their last legs though!

In conclusion

Some may turn up their noses at these options and say it's not real growing if you don't grow your own from seed. However, if you still want to eat salad and your growing hasn't gone to plan for some reason, even the most expensive of the above options will work out much cheaper and fresher (probably tastier too) than shop bought table supplies.

Do you have any other sources or hints and tips to add to this guide?

Update: Anna has come up with some excellent advice in the Comments which is worth acting on now (October) if you're still on the hunt for salad supplies:

I have ordered from Delfland Organics including an order that arrived in the last week. Have always been impressed by the quality of their plants. They are offering a variety of plug plants for October delivery including a winter salad mix or individual varieties which include claytonia, corn salad, land cress, lettuces and wild rocket. Rocket Gardens also offers similar but I have no experience of ordering from them. If you have a Country Market (formerly WI Market) it is worth having a peek in there.

Update 2: Jane Perrone has good advice re salad and foraging options in The Guardian (5th Oct) for this time of year. There's a rather nice name check for this blog and our continuing #saladchat conversation on Twitter too. A very warm welcome to everyone who's come over as a result :)

* = it's not really cheating, but the title sounded much more interesting (and snappy!) than how-you-can-still-grow-salad-when-it's-too-late-to-sow-your-seed-or-slugs-have-eaten-your-entire-crop-or-you-didn't-have-room-at-the-right-time-or-you're-too-impatient-to-wait-and-are-looking-for-a-shortcut ;)

7 comments:

  1. Oh I feel honoured - thank you for such a full answer to my question!

    I put onions and garlic in last week (don't you get a lot of onion sets in one of those little nets!) and I stuck a row of lettuce seeds in, just to see if anything grows. Loving the idea of putting in some 'supermarket sweep' lettuce as well - thank you for that!

    I will let you know if they survive .....

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  2. Black and Tabby - you're welcome. It's always good when a question in the comments inspires a blog post :)

    Yes - I'm always surprised at how many onions there are! I'm just about to put my autumn onion sets and garlic in - I'm building some raised beds for them up at the allotment so they don't struggle on my clay.

    The supermarket lettuce will probably be the wrong type (i.e. a summer variety), but there's some scope for extra leaves to be grown until around the end of the month, especially if you can protect them with a cloche or some fleece. You might be able to local source a winter variety somewhere, which will kick start your salads late winter/early spring.

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  3. Not cheating in my books VP just creative thinking :) Some excellent suggestions from you. I have ordered from Delfland Organics
    (www.organicplants.co.uk) including an order that arrived in the last week. Have always been impressed by the quality of their plants. They are offering a variety of plug plants for October delivery including a winter salad mix or individual varieties which include claytonia, corn salad, land cress, lettuces and wild rocket. Rocket Gardens also offers similar but I have no experience of ordering from them. If you have a Country Market (formerly WI Market) it is worth having a peek in there.

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  4. Hi Anna - thanks for the excellent info which I've added to the post. I see they do allow customers to pick and mix their own selection from what's available for October :)

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  5. From Linda Penny via her email subscription: brill post. Thanks Linda - I hope you find it useful :)

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  6. Definitely not cheating, and although a lot of those options are more pricey than a packet of seeds, I bet they still work out cheaper than buying one of those pillow packs. If I can get my raised beds up and running I will check out the Delfland options, I've bought from them before too and the quality was excellent.

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  7. Janet - I've been keeping an eye on the most expensive way of growing salad leaves (bought in plants grown in pots and with the compost renewed each time) and it still works out far cheaper than buying those pillow packs :)

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