Category Archives: 52 Week Salad Challenge

52 Week Salad Challenge: April

April has not been kind, it rarely is here, but this year it seems particularly unkind. We have had 21 days of rain, a total of 152 mm (6 inches), and a couple of light falls of snow; the average overnight temperature has been a mere 2℃ and we have had frosts on nine days. The greenhouse has fared better with an average low of 8℃ and reaching 20℃ most days, if only for a few hours. The daffodils and tulips don’t seem to mind though. This beautiful tulip  is ‘Red Georgette’.

The greenhouse is full to bursting but germination is slow and plant growth is sluggish. Outside the soil is still too cold to risk sowing seeds and is mostly still covered in black plastic to try to warm it up and to keep the weeds under control. The aforesaid weeds seem to have no difficulty in romping away in their usual thuggish manner. To quote the wonderful Ian Dury:

“Is this fair, my little ones, is this fair?

No, it f*****g ain’t!”

So, how is the salad challenge fairing through all this? Many weeks ago I sowed lettuce and spinach seeds under the staging in the greenhouse in the hope of having something fairly quickly to add to the very limited supply of mizuna and mustard that survived the winter. The lettuces germinated quickly, looked around, clearly didn’t like what they saw and promptly keeled over. The spinach germination rate was poor but at least they didn’t die, unfortunately they didn’t grow either, just sat there being nibbled at by something. Lesson learnt: the soil at ground level in the greenhouse is nearly as cold as that outside.

Then I read a blog post by someone (unfortunately, I have forgotten who it was so I cannot give them credit) who had success growing salad in an old washing up bowl, so now I have an old fatball container packed with mixed lettuce seedlings and a washing up bowlful of black kale, the spinach survivors from under the staging and a few celery leaf seeds.

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I intentionally over-sowed the lettuce seeds and the thinnings give an intense kick to salads, and I love the flavour of raw young kale leaves. The spinach is thankfully starting to recover. The parsley seedlings that I grew on the window sill back in early March are now in the greenhouse and large enough to harvest a few leaves occasionally. A couple of times I have nearly picked Amni Majus leaves by mistake, the seed leaves look very similar (it is only an up-market cow parsley, after all!).

The coriander is romping away now and I have risked putting some outside under cloches made from five litre water bottles to protect them from the wind.

I also have a mini dill forest in a pot. It looks so pretty and feels so soft and wafty that I just have to let my hand roll gently over it as I pass. It doesn’t seem to mind .

We are not eating as much home grown salad as I would like yet but I get enormous satisfaction from picking a bit of this and a little of that. It just seems so much more precious a harvest than a load of past-its-best shop bought leaves. Yesterday for lunch I prepared a bowlful of white cabbage and broccoli (both bought) plus kale, lettuce seedlings, mustard leaf, mizuna leaf and flowers, garlic chives, marjoram and lemon thyme. I thought it was delicious but the conversation with Alec went something like this:

Alec:  (prodding yellow bits) “What exactly is this you are giving me?”

Me: “Mizuna flowers”

Alec: “Mmm”

Me: “This is a really nice salad, don’t you think?”

Alec: “I like the dressing”.

This salad challenge thing is most definitely still a work in progress!

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You can’t always get what you want

You can’t always get what you want
… But if you try sometimes
… you just might find
You get what you need.

Rolling Stones ‘Let It Bleed’ album, 1969

The vernal equinox has arrived and the garden is waking again from its wintry slumbers so it seems a good time to review my progress so far in the 52 Week Salad Challenge. You will find my previous posts on the subject here, here and here if you would like to read them.

The aim is to put home-grown salad on the plate every week of the year and technically I have managed to do that, but I don’t feel very satisfied with what I’ve done. What we have eaten has been either repetitive or in very small quantities or often both. In the garden there were only a few mizuna and mustard plants clinging on to life, offering little plus the over-wintering peas that I robbed a few shoots from. No more thanY a few mouthfuls.

I tried growing micro greens indoors – the harvest was tasty but minuscule, I didn’t get to grips with successional planting and I quickly got tired of having trays of seedlings cluttering up my kitchen work top (the only place with sufficient light). But I potted up several of the seedlings of parsley and coriander and they are growing on now in the greenhouse. I’m told I did well to get parsley to germinate that early in the year, for which I should probably thank the potting shed’s over-enthusiastic wood-burning stove and excellent insulation!

The challenge pushed me to resurrect my sprouting jars. I tried a few seeds that were new to me but quickly settled into my old favourites – chick peas, mung beans and alfalfa, plus a new one, Puy lentils, which are delicious.

So, overall not a resounding success, it is true, but am I down-hearted? No, not at all, quite the contrary. I may not have filled our stomachs but the challenge has made me think, involved me in a community of like-minded gardeners and fuelled my determination to do better next winter.

Ever since I started this garden I have wanted to grow food for all year round but have never come close to achieving it. I gave up growing main crop potatoes because blight gets them, pumpkins are my biggest (only?) success, although the mice ate most of them this year. The trouble is I get all excited about sowing and planting in spring and then I run out of energy and enthusiasm. I think the main reason is that I have never been sure what I should be doing, what crops can be grown for winter and early spring and when to sow, how to make a follow-on crop fit into a four year rotation cycle.

A few weeks ago Michelle, whose idea the salad challenge was, interviewed Charles Dowding, the well-known organic gardener and advocate of no-dig gardening, for her blog. As a result of reading this very interesting interview I bought two of Charles’ books*.

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The books are just what a gardener needs – they inspire you to try something and they give you the information you need in order to succeed, plus there are lots of good photographs. He has also written a book on salads for winter, but I went for the winter vegetables one because, in truth, I don’t want to eat a lot of salad over winter, I prefer warm vegetables and veggie-packed soups. In any case there are sections on salad growing in the book. I was surprised to learn that many of the winter crops have to be started now, I had assumed one started them much later. I can’t wait to get going when the current cold spell lets up.

My plan is to grow as many different things as I can since there will inevitably be failures (our mountain winters are very unpredictable) and I will start to learn what works and what doesn’t. You never know, I might even manage to grow Brussels sprouts (which are very nice raw in salads, by the way). And, of course, I will tell you all about it. One final thought on salads: if, like me, your vinaigrettes can be a bit hit and miss you will find a great vinaigrette recipe here on Carl Legge’s excellent website. In fact, you’ll find lots of lovely recipes there, including salads made with foraged plants and even ‘weeds’.

And, finally,

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not a salad but you may remember the rhubarb that I dug up and then forgot and finally transplanted to the greenhouse after weeks of bad weather. Well, here it is looking very happy and we had our first taste of the year this evening, stewed with apple, orange zest and cinnamon.

*Charles Dowding, Organic Gardening: The Natural No-Dig Way
and Charles Dowding, How to Grow Winter Vegetables

The Salad Challenge – February’s progress

My original enthusiasm for the 52 Week Salad Challenge seems to have diminished a little, which is a shame. I have been distracted by the problems we have been experiencing with the snow and cold, but I think also I am frustrated at what feels like just tinkering with putting food on a plate rather than getting outside and ‘really’ growing it.

I have continued to experiment with sprouting other things than my staple chickpeas, mung beans and alfalfa. The big success has been Puy or green lentils, which taste very similar to mung beans and grow as quickly. They have an advantage over mung in that they do not shed their outer skin. This skin tastes papery and can distract from the overall satisfaction of eating mung sprouts and I often remove as many as I can. To have an easily available alternative without that inconvenience is good news.

I have also tried quinoa (pronounced keenwa), which, for anyone who is not familiar with it, is a grain of the amaranthus family. It is popular with people with a gluten intolerance since it contains no gluten. I was warned to rinse them very well because the outer casing is high in saponins, which are a mild gastrointestinal irritant. What I noticed was that the water I rinsed them in was cloudy. The grains were quick to germinate but then reached about one cm in length and stopped growing. Sprouts need either to come from large seeds like chickpeas or to grow a good sized sprout (alfalfa, for example), otherwise they are a pretty disappointing mouthful. Quinoa failed that test and, worse still, was virtually tasteless. I left them several days hoping for more growth that just didn’t come, during which time the cloudiness of the rinsing water worsened, which put me off them completely. I tried growing them twice and threw them away both times.

The only other observation I have to make on sprouts is a failure of one batch of chickpeas. I have known chickpeas to start sprouting while I am still soaking them. They are the sprinters of the sprouting world. But during the recent very cold weather one batch barely sprouted at all. Other people on the salad challenge noted the same thing although we disagreed as to whether it was the cold or the low light levels that caused it. I am pretty convinced that in my case it was primarily lack of light, a second batch, started when it was still as cold but the days were sunny, germinated well.

Coriander micro greens

I had a bit of a disaster with my first attempt at micro greens (see here) but I tried again. This time I grew peas, coriander and parsley and instead of leaving them under the north-facing roof light each day I brought them into the kitchen in as much light as I could find. In a small kitchen this is, frankly, a nuisance. The results have certainly been better, the pea sprouts grew well and were not at all leggy, the coriander germinated very well, albeit a little leggy. Mark Diacono (@markdoc) of Otter Farm suggests eating the coriander as soon as the seed leaves have formed for the most intense flavour. He is not wrong – the flavour is immense. The pea sprouts have a wonderful ‘mange-tout in a leaf’ taste. Disappointingly, having pick the tops from the peas, rather than regrowing about half of them keeled over and died.

The parsley, which I am not treating just as a micro green, I shall grow on some of the better seedlings, germinated very well but were, once again, horrendously leggy. With these I followed the advice of Alys Fowler (@alysfowler) on Twitter and spread more compost on top to cover the long spindly stems. I damaged one or two in the process but the rest really responded well and are now growing slowly but strongly. What excellent advice.

One comment I would make about micro greens is that the amount you can harvest from one tray is very small, you still need fully grown salad leaves to make a proper sized plateful. This just makes me all the more determined to over-winter salads successfully this year.

My apologies for the paucity of photographs, I have definitely been distracted by this stuff:

The potager is under here somewhere