By Sasha Ivanova at London Plantology
Your greens no longer have to be green! Recent research indicates that some of the healthiest “greens” are actually purple, red and yellow. With new varieties of tasty salads and vegetables increasingly available, it’s so easy to create a feast for your eyes at the same time as excitement for the palate.
Spring is the ideal time to grow a range of vegetables for delicious salads. The temperature is not too hot and and the soil is just warm enough for seeds to germinate. This year I’m growing quick crops like radishes, spring onions, lettuce and all year round vegetables like Swiss chard, kale and Mexican tree spinach.
Lettuce is always on my list. I love fresh leaves, picked with my own hands, and they taste so much more delicious than any shop-bought greens. Lettuce grows well in containers making it an ideal crop for a small urban garden, balcony or windowsill. I prefer loose-leaf varieties as they’re quicker to mature and I can harvest a few individual leaves at a time – just enough for my lunch or a sandwich.
I start my growing season in early spring by sowing “Salad Bowl Mixed” lettuce. One of the fastest to grow, it takes only eight weeks from sowing to cutting and has beautiful green and purple oak-shaped leaves.
My other favourite lettuce is Lollo Rossa, a decorative loose-leaf variety from Italy. Crisp deep red leaves have a nutty flavour and look great on the plate when combined with wild rocket, purple basil and fan-shaped “Reine de Glace” lettuce. I sow both varieties in April and they supply me with tasty leaves throughout the summer.
I can’t imagine my kitchen garden without Swiss chard and kale. These greens are winter-hardy and started in the middle of summer will produce leaves well into the next spring helping to avoid a dreadful “hungry gap”. There are many colourful varieties to choose from and I like to experiment with a new variety every season. Swiss Chard “Bright Lights”, “Scarlet” kale and “Midnight Sun” kale are among my favourites.
Bringing a variety of flavour, texture and colour, root vegetables like radishes, beetroot and carrots are a great addition to the summer salads.
Radishes are one of the first vegetables I sow directly in the soil. The secret to a good radish? Grow them in a cool location with plenty of water – perfect for the British spring. “Rainbow Mix” radish can be sown as early as March and harvested in 4 weeks. It’s a fun variety to try with kids and contains purple, red, yellow and white coloured radishes in one packet. You never know what colour your next one will be! Gold “Zlata” and “Pink Slipper” are summer radishes that are slow to bolt. Their roots are juicy and radiant, even in the hot weather, and I start them every couple of weeks from May to September. Pale yellow and bright pink radishes mixed with green and purple lettuce look stunning and taste refreshing on warm days.
Beetroot is another great vegetable to begin your gardening adventures with. Performing well in any soil, it’s easy to grow, packed with antioxidants and gives you two delicious crops from the same plant. Beet leaves with bright red stems not only bring colour to the kitchen but many health benefits too. They are high in iron, magnesium and vitamins B6 and K. Purple-red roots have an earthy taste produced by the organic compound geosmin. Some people like it and some don’t, but I personally find this flavour adds an extra dimension to summer dishes. Try the yellow beet “Boldor”; the non-staining, white heritage variety “Albina Vereduna”; or beetroot “Chioggia” with its red and white ‘bullseye’ rings for a tasty alternative to traditional purple beets.
When I was a child, carrots were orange. Boring and orange. Nowadays carrots in my veg patch are nothing like that. From red and yellow to almost black, I’m discovering new varieties to get excited about all the time. The soil in my garden is a heavy clay with lots of stones, so not ideal for carrots. I use containers half-filled with compost and half-filled with sand, instead. Carrot “Sweet Imperator Mix” with thin long roots can be sown thickly in the container and comes in a variety of colours – white, cream, golden, red and purple. Other colourful varieties I like are “Red Samurai” and “Cosmic Purple”.
Plants must work hard and provide multiple benefits to earn their place in small gardens. Edible flowers are pretty, attract pollinators and bring a bit of zing to summer salads. There are many edible flowers available: Borage, Calendula, Viola, Bee balm, pea and bean flowers and many kind of herbs. I grow nasturtium and chives year after year in my London garden.
Nasturtium is a truly versatile plant whose leaves, flowers and seed pods are all edible. The leaves and flowers have a peppery taste that is ideal for spicing up salads. This year I’m trying the ‘Strawberries and Cream’ variety with big peach cream flowers. Nasturtium is a magnet for aphids and blackfly and I planted it among peas, beans and courgettes to keep my veg safe and improve pollination. Around August, I’ll collect the unripe green seed pods for pickling. Pickled in white wine vinegar they make great capers – sharp and salty – but don’t forget to leave some seeds for next growing season!
Chives are a low-maintenance perennial herb forming neat clumps of green shoots as early as February. The leaves have a mild onion-like flavour and are delicious served in butter with new potatoes. The flowers are also edible and buzz with bees throughout the summer. Purple and pink in colour, they’re an attractive garnish for salads and fish dishes. Like nasturtium, chives are good companion plants in the kitchen garden. The onion smell repels carrot flies which improves both the growth and taste of your carrots.
With a regular sowing of colourful vegetables every few weeks, you can have a rainbow of “greens” to fill your plate all summer long! Keep discovering new exciting varieties to grow and eat, and share your favourites in the comments below.
How do you enjoy your colourful salads? Are there any veggies you like to include that we’ve missed? Be sure to let us know on our Facebook page – we’d love to hear from you! In the meantime, check out what else you can grow by visiting our salad hub page for crop recommendations and growing advice. Find specific beetroot and chard growing tips at our dedicated hub page.
About the author
Sasha Ivanova is an urban gardener, blogger, and martial artist. Passionate about propagation and growing from seed, she grows all her plants in a small London back yard. Her research has led her to cultivate unusual edible plants, as well as experimenting with fruit trees in what she describes as a ‘garden without trees’. Read more at her blog, londonplantology.com