In his final article on salad vegetables Harry Smith looks at some of the unusual alternatives to lettuce.
For most of us, lettuce still forms the major part of the salads we eat, yet there are many highly palatable alternatives with which to ring the changes. They can not only add the spice of variety to our lives, but also offer a measure of economy when lettuce prices soar.
One such plant is Corn Salad or Lamb's Lettuce (Valerianella locusta). This can be sown outside in succession through the summer in ½in (1.27cm) deep drills, or broadcast, taking care to maintain moist conditions for good germination. The thinnings can be used in salads, followed rather slowly by the hardy, fully grown plants in autumn and winter. Individual leaves can be picked off, or the whole rosettes of rather spoon-shaped leaves cut for use later on, leaving the roots to produce further growth in due course.
In recent years, Chinese cabbage has gained a place in the salad bowl, and is equally useful boiled or stir-fried, having a flavour quite different from our own kinds of cabbage. It has a great tendency to bolt if transplanted, so should always be sown in situ. Bolting can also occur if sowings are made too early, that is why sowings are better delayed until early summer.
Sow the seed thinly in drills about ¾in (2cm) deep, placing further rows 15in (38cm) apart. Final thinning of the plants should be to about 12in (30cm) apart, as they can tend to rot in wet weather if grown too closely together. Chinese cabbage are fast-growing plants, but are shallow rooted and demand a copious supply of water in dry weather.
Although, for older gardeners especially, the word chicory may revive memories of bitter-tasting coffee substitutes, crisp 'chicons' of this useful plant can form a succulent basis for winter salads, and are readily raised by forcing stored roots from a crop harvested in the summer. The seeds should be sown from April to June in shallow drills spaced a 12in (30cm) apart. In late autumn, before the first hard frost, the parsnip-like roots are lifted, and their foliage twisted off before storing away in a box of dry peat or sand in a cool but frost-free place.
Three or four weeks before the first chicory chicons are required, carefully stand about five of the roots in a flower pot and pack them round with damp sand or soil. Then create a dark chamber by inverting another flower pot one size larger, and placing it on top (with the holes covered up!). Leave in a temperature of 50F (10C) and make sure the sand or soil stays moist. Higher temperature will give faster growth and the sand or soil can be used several times for further forcings. When the chicons are ready they can be snapped off the roots, which are then best discarded.
Another type of chicory suitable for salads is the endive (Cichorium endiva), of which many kinds will be found in the catalogues. The variety 'Coquette' introduced in 1990 has an appetising and slender but very finely-cut curled leaf, and is selected from the French variety 'tres fine Maraichere'. 'Batavian Broad Leaved' has large foliage as its names suggests, and can also be cooked. Seeds for any early crop can be sown in April, followed by a further sowing in June or July. The seedlings may be transplanted when about 3in (7.5cm) high, or thinned out to about a foot (30cm) apart. The plants are half-hardy and will need protection as winter approaches. The broad-leaved kinds can be blanched a week or ten days before use by tying the foliage together with raffia when dry, or covering with a pot or box. This will reduce the rather bitter flavour.
The increasingly popular Raddicchio form of chicory is a somewhat hardier subject, and its red leaves add a decorative touch to any salad bowl. These tend to have large hearts of white-veined red leaves. Sowings of raddicchio are best made in June and July for an autumn harvest, and will often stand well until the first hard frosts.
Watercress (or Rorippa- nasturtium aquaticum!) is a tasty and highly nutritious addition to salads, as well as an excellent accompaniment to steaks and the like. Although normally associated with streams of free-flowing, crystal-clear water, it can be grown quite easily on the land. For many years now I've raised large crops in growing bags and more recently in the greenhouse ring culture tomato bed. Watercress seed is listed in T&M’s catalogue, but a few sprigs from a bunch of greengrocer's Watercress will root rapidly in a glass of water, all ready for planting out about six inches (15cm) apart. Given a reasonably good supply of water, growth is rapid and the supply very soon exceeds any possible demand!
Cress of the other kind (Lepidum sativum), whether grown with mustard (Sinapis alba) or on its own, is surely the most quickly and easily raised salad standby. A layer of damp kitchen towel or moist soil-less compost in a punnet will produce a cuttable crop in days. If to be grown with mustard seed, sprinkle the cress seeds on the growing medium three days before the mustard and they will then both be ready at the same time. Much commercial salad cress sold today is in fact grown from seed of salad rape (Brassica napus) which has an excellent flavour.
The sprouted seeds of several plants can form a salad almost on their own, and have the added advantage of being extremely nutritious. Such seeds should be specially intended for sprouting. Alfalfa is one of the most popular subjects for this treatment, having a most appetising, nutty flavour which some have likened to fresh green peas. Chinese bean sprouts are also popular, but the spicy Fenugreek, with its curry-like flavour may not be chosen by some. The taste does become less pronounced though, once the sprouting is done. Thompson & Morgan list no less than twenty seeds for sprouting, including specially-bred radish seed with a really hot taste.
Equipment for sprouting seed is minimal indeed. A dessertspoon or two of the seed is placed in the jar, the nylon or muslin secured over the neck with the rubber band, and the seed given several rinsings under a running tap, giving the jar a thorough shaking between each. Finally allow to drain and leave the jar on its side in a fairly warm place. Give further rinses daily (most important to keep it fresh), and in a very few days the great mass of sprouts is ready to fork out and use. Alternatively you can buy a Special Seed Sprouter for easy culture.
Many more alternatives or enhancements for lettuce in salads can be grown. As well as for sprouting, fenugreek makes a leafy green vegetable to be used in moderation, so does alfalfa, and the roots and leaves of dandelion can also play a part (at least one catalogue lists the seeds). Even the much more normally cooked spinach can be used, either in its true form or as spinach beet or chard. Or how about sampling a little sorrel with its lemon-like flavour? For most of us though, for much of the year, the crisp leaves of well-grown lettuce will still reign supreme in the salad bowl, despite the growing competition.
Seed of all these unusual salad ingredients are available from Thompson & Morgan. And don't forget, salad ingredients are very vulnerable to slug damage, so always try to avoid a wasted crop by using a good quality organic slug killer. Find links to all of our best information for growing salad in one place at our salad hub page.
Harry Smith trained as a teacher of gardening and rural science.
Source of article
Growing From Seed - Summer 1991 Vol. 5 Number 3
© The Seed Raising Journal from Thompson & Morgan