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Salad Leaves for All Seasons by Charles Dowling is really my manual for gardening in what is really quite a small suburban space. Over the last twenty years that I have lived in my house I have transformed, what was a blank canvas, into a cottage garden. Framed by mature cherry and peach trees, with sunny daisies and meadow flowers, and inspired by the late Geoff Hamilton's ornamental garden ideas, it is now a collection of plants most of which have an edible quality!
This love of self- sufficiency is why I plant all varieties of salad leaves, whether in pots or in the borders, as they are ready to put into sandwiches and salads all year round. I have tried to grow ambitious crops such as potatoes and cabbages, but most of my borders are not suitable, due to being north facing or too poky, and in such a small space these crops are more of a novelty than an asset, wonderful though they are.
From April to October every year I am self sufficient in every salad leaf crop you can imagine, and through the winter thanks to the advice given in the book I am reviewing, I will even manage to produce some good leaves depending on the weather at the time.
Salad leaves are something of a passion of mine, in fact I eat them twice a day. I used to purchase the bagged salad leaves, preferring organic if possible, but found the longevity to be an issue. "Living Salads" which can be purchased in some stores, were an improvement as these are planted and sold in their growing compost, and are ready to pick as you need them. Tesco also own sell some excellent salad leaves in cardboard, rather than plastic, and again these are an improvement, but nothing beats the delight of going outside to pick your own leaves. They are fresh and you can be eating them within minutes, thereby gaining all the benefit from the nutrients. When you have tasted your own freshly picked leaves you realise that there is no comparison between these and anything else you can purchase. It is then that Charles Dowding comes into your life with his superb book, which guides you through all the stages of growing these delicious crops.
The book is available from Amazon where it retails for £6.70 - a good price for a wealth of knowledge in my opinion. The colourful cover with its curly leaves of salads in season gives you a flavour of what is inside this book, which I feel is an asset to anyone who wishes to undertake the task of growing their own leaves successfully. The author has almost thirty years experience in growing salad leaves. In the early years that Charles was growing commercially, the demand for salad leaves was non existent, as the consumer craved the iceberg or cos lettuce. It was only when the author moved to France that he saw the slightly wider salad leaves which graced the rural markets there, that he became interested in the possibilities, and after returning to Britain he set about expanding his leafy crops encompassing varieties from Italy, and as far afield as from The Orient. This book is a dossier of everything he has learnt, and the beauty is you can apply the knowledge however small your garden space is. Charles grows leaves for the commercial market and sells fresh and locally, but you can emulate his methods and produce salad leaves for your meals, all year round!
The book is very well designed and the chapters collate information together in a very structured way, enabling you to pick and choose your sections depending on what stage your knowledge is based. In general though the book has four main parts. These I have detailed below.
Part One - Growing Leaves
The first section which has eight chapters focuses on all the stages of growing the salad leaves. It covers every aspect of the process and imparts some very important knowledge to the novice, as well as to the experienced grower. In fact this is the beauty of this book - that it has such a wide appeal as it is devoted entirely to this specialised market. What I really like is that the advice is tailored not only to those with larger gardens, but also to those who have just room for a few pots. He advises against spending lots of money on fancy equipment, but to just purchase good quality seed. To then choose a variety of leaves to allow you to experiment and find your favourites is the next step. I have done this over the years, and it certainly does help as some of the leaves will have more bitter properties than others, and it really is a question of finding your favourites.
This section emphasises the importance of being able to grow organically, and of course this makes the process so much cheaper, and the end product will cost a fraction of the price of the leaves you can purchase in shops. The main point about growing these crops is the importance of watering them daily, which I do twice actually. These crops are nearly all water and will not survive if you forget to water them, so this is really where the only hard works lies!
This section covers all aspects of sowing, including how far apart to place the seeds, and how to pick and store successfully. This is vital and contains so much really helpful advice. On his farm the leaves are picked at dawn. I do this at home picking in the early morning, and it is absolutely fantastic. Last time I went away for a week to the Outer Hebrides I got up early and picked enough leaves to bag up and take with us. I washed them and placed them in plastic bags in a cool box, and then 2 days later transferred them to a cold part of the fridge. They lasted in tip top condition for an entire week!
This section also has ideas which take you on a journey through all the endless possibilities which make up the salad leaves you can grow. These include rocket, endive, mizuna, pak choi, chard, lambs lettuce and many cut and come again varieties of lettuce. I try to choose as many as I can as it makes such a colourful salad bowl, and I also grow heartsease violas and English marigolds which enable me to provide edible flowers within the salad. These violet and orange flowers make a salad which says summer like nothing else!
The final part of this section details advice regarding pests and diseases. In my experience these are few and far between, as the plants are young and healthy, and vigilance with watering produces strong plants which can sustain the odd unwanted nibble from a creature!
Part Two - Salad leaves Seasons Of Harvest.
Section two covers all the aspects of sowing for the seasons and what you can expect from growing all year round. This is the section which I have found so useful, as expanding my growing times has enabled me to bridge the gap that I had before in the depths of winter. Yes admittedly the leaves I can grow outside, even with protection, are not the prolific greens of the summer, but they still provide a welcome salad even into November. January and February are more of a challenge, but even so the odd leaf has survived, and this section has advice on what to plant depending on the season to increase your chances of picking your own Christmas Day salad!
This section also contains some stunning recipes which are seasonal and based on the crops you will have produced.
Part Three - A Celebration Of Outdoor Leaves.
Section three is entitled "A Celebration of Outdoor Leaves" and this section really details all of the possible varieties you can grow in great detail. This includes lettuce, endives, cabbage leaves, and exotic varieties from the east, herbs and flowers. This is the section I have found most useful when planning my growing schedules for the year. It was through this section that the idea came to grow colourful edible flowers, which make each salad a real joy to eat and to prepare.
Part Four - Indoor Sowing And Growing.
The final section really concentrates on the growing of salad leaves indoors, in greenhouses or poly tunnels. This section intrigues me as I do not have these accessories, but it is making me think I should have, as the opportunities for extending the season become more plausible with winter protection afforded by these shelters.
So that is my tour around this wonderful book. It really is my manual for everything I grow with regard to salad leaves, and what I like about the book is that if you don't want to grow from seed, but to buy the plants, then you can do so and still benefit from all the advice which follows on from the small plant stage. As a matter of fact I don't grow everything from seed. Fantastic plants crop up in the most surprising of places. B&Q actually has an amazing selection of salad leaves in the plants section, though this is sadly seasonal, but certainly have a look in there in May and June when you will have a superb selection. In our town there is a lady who sells her plants in the farmer's market weekly, and she is an excellent source of some unusual varieties such as purslane and Greek basil. Even buying the plants will save money over ready made salads, and so much of the work has been done for you.
An added bonus to many of these leaves is that if you let them go on too far they will flower, and some of the flowers are beautiful. Rocket for example has pretty yellow flowers and is a magnet for butterflies.
So there it is - a superb book and a trip round my little salad garden. Things have come on a lot since the days of the iceberg lettuce- now to pick lunch, where are my scissors?
Available from Amazon and for a special first hand view of Charles and his salad leaves have a look at this video - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gDEEihHIwCc.
This review is also published on Ciao under my user name Violet1278 with photographs of some of my lettuce and salad leaves.