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Leafy salad greens

Leafy salad greens

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Although winter is not normally associated with salads, it's a great time for growing leafy greens, says PENNY WOODWARD

The soil is cooling down so growth is slowing, but there are still vegies that can be planted now. The most useful are the leafy greens, those cut-and-come-again greens like rocket, mustards, Chinese brassicas, Japanese salad leaves, lettuce, rainbow chard, silver beet  and the ubiquitous kale! They will thrive right through winter and can be picked daily providing nutritious leaves for soups, salads, sandwiches and snacks.

As much as I love the look of Tuscan kale, and my chooks adore it, I prefer the flavour of Russian red kale. And red leafed lettuces and mustards are beautiful and tasty too. Sow seed into small groups, or in mixed rows and start picking as soon as the leaves are big enough to be useful. Always take the outside leaves, with the inner ones left to keep growing. Seed germination may take longer because of the increased cold but the end results are well worth the wait.

Try growing wong bok (Chinese cabbage), pak choy (Chinese white cabbage), tatsoi (Chinese flat cabbage) as well as the Japanese salad plants komatsuna (Japanese mustard), mizuna, mibuna and mitsuba. Mitsuba (Cryptotania canadensis) is a perennial leafy herb with a flavour that resembles parsley and angelica. It is delicious chopped and sprinkled over soups.

Lettuces are not just lettuce any more and many open hearted lettuces do well at this time of year too. Some of my favourites are ‘Amish Deer Tongue’ with pale soft green leaves, ‘Green Coral’ and ‘Red Coral’ with deeply divided green or red leaves, ‘Australian Yellow Leaf’ and ‘Royal Oakleaf’ with bright green crunchy lobed leaves. Cos or Romaine types like ‘Baby Cos’, ‘Crispmint’, ‘Flame’, ‘Freckles’ and ‘Rouge d’Hiver’ have colourful, crisp, juicy and sweet leaves.

Lettuce likes sun for about half the day in summer, preferably morning sun, but in winter are better grown in full sun. In dry weather, mulch the soil with pea or lucerne straw or sugar cane mulch to make sure that lettuces never dry out, or the leaves will be bitter. Water with seaweed emulsion and fish emulsion or weed tea or worm juice or liquid compost every couple of weeks.

A relatively recent trend is to grow micro salad mixes, so that you sow a mixture of leafy salad plants and harvest them very young over several weeks. Most of the lettuces mentioned will take about 25 days to get to the micro salad size, and 45-50 days to reach full size. Other leafy salad plants have a similar growth rate. Once any lettuce starts producing a flower head, the leaves become progressively more bitter and inedible. This is true too of plants like rocket, and many of Chinese brassicas too.