Don't waste cash on bags of lettuce: sow, grow and forage your way to salad self-sufficiency this autumn and winter.
Turn over a new leaf: It's so easy to grow or forage your own salad leaves, says gardening editor Jane Perrone, there's no need to splash out on expensive plastic bags of the stuff in the supermarket. Photograph: Sophia Evans for the Guardian
I confess: my veg patch is a mess. My sweetcorn is still knee-high and the brassicas are smothered in caterpillars. So much for self-sufficient living.
Last summer I opened the fridge to grab a half-used bag of lettuce only to find it had transformed into a pool of slime. I'd had enough of paying for bags of tasteless leaves – surely I could grow enough salad for my family, if nothing else? In the year since, I've managed to keep my salad bowl full with homegrown leaves, saved money and got my children piling pea shoots on to their plates with enthusiasm.
You can sow several salad leaves now and, if you give them a little care and protection, enjoy regular harvests through the winter and into spring: purslane, lamb's lettuce (corn salad), winter lettuce and oriental leaves are all worth sowing, and you could be cutting your first salads within a month. All you need is a container with a depth of 10cm or more: I like to reuse wine crates, banana boxes or willow baskets, but you can use a regular pot or tray, plastic or terracotta – as long as it has drainage holes. Cut up holey old woollen jumpers or blankets as liners: they cost nothing, help to keep the compost in place and act as a sponge for moisture. Colour equals plate appeal, so think beyond plain green leaves: I plant violas and violets (whose leaves and flowers are edible) in some containers, and choose colourful mixed leaves such as Winter Mix from Suttons' Speedy Veg leaf salad range, which promises a crop in 3-4 weeks, or Thompson & Morgan's Speedy Mix. Once sown, place the container somewhere sheltered and frost-free: an insulated greenhouse, sunny windowsill, sun-trap patio or cold frame. You can sow some salads outside in a veg bed, but they'll do better protected by a cloche or swathed in horticultural fleece: start them off in modules, transplant them outside once they're young but strong and protect from slugs. My favourites for outdoor sowing are lettuce 'Merveille des Quatre Saisons' and Misticanza autumn/winter cut-and-come-again from Franchi seeds.
And don't think only lettuce – it's time to raid your herbs. Adding punchy leaves such as mint, parsley, sorrel, lemon balm, chervil and green onions to a salad makes for a more robust accompaniment to autumn and winter dishes. Pot some up and bring them inside to keep the supply going through winter.
Growing pea shoots takes seconds and costs pennies, and they taste delicious. Soak whole dried peas overnight in a glass of water, then sow thickly in a shallow tray of multipurpose compost (I use the plastic trays soft fruit is sold in) and keep damp. Within a couple of weeks they'll produce shoots a few centimetres tall: snip them off with a pair of scissors, leaving a leaf or two, and they will re-sprout for more harvests.
Start a mini-forest of microgreens on your windowsill: coriander, fenugreek, cress, basil, radish and beetroot seeds take only days to be ready to harvest (sow in a thin layer of compost) with a flavour kick to put the finishing touches on your salad. Get into the habit of spending five minutes a week sowing, and you'll always be able to add a touch of homegrown greens to your meals.
If foraging sounds too much like hard work, fear not. You'll find plenty of greens in your garden that cost nothing in time or money. You don't have to turn into a Ray Mears: just learn to identify a couple of tasty but common weeds and garden plants.
Hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) is my super salad ingredient of winter. In summer, it flowers and sets seed very fast, but it slows down in colder weather so the leaves become bigger and softer – it tastes like mild watercress. Pick the whole plant before it produces its tiny white flowers, chop off the roots and rinse before eating.
And the goji berry bush that never fruits – did you know the leaves are edible too? Likewise the invasive but pretty Houttuynia cordata, a coriander-flavoured south-east Asian herb. Along with the leaves of red valerian (Centranthus ruber), and dandelions, these can bulk out a handful of winter lettuce.
With all foraged leaves, stick to the youngest specimens and pick only where it's pesticide, weedkiller and dog-free.
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