Remember when salads consisted of an anaemic wedge of iceberg lettuce with a few radish and tomato slices smothered in thick, orange dressing? No longer.
A wonderful assortment of feathery, frilly, curled and serrated plants, often referred to as “greens” - even though some are beautiful shades of red, purple and burgundy - can be grown to create any number of taste, colour and texture combinations. Flavours range from the pungent pepper of cress, mustard and arugula to the mildly tart lemon of purslane.
Salad greens generally need well-drained, fertile soil and full sun. Amaranth and purslane thrive in high temperatures, but many greens grow best in cooler spring and fall temperatures; they tend to wilt, and bolt, in high temperatures. Summer heat can also cause greens to taste bitter or very spicy; taste before adding to salads. Arugula, watercress and mâche will benefit from light or dappled shade at the height of summer.
Before planting, work generous amounts of compost or composted manure into the soil and keep soil moist but not soggy throughout the growing period. Mulch with hay, straw or leaves. Some greens can be sown more than once per season. Check days to maturity and hardiness in your zone.
Arugula, mustard and cabbage are susceptible to flea beetles - tiny, black insects that riddle leaves with small holes and can kill seedlings. Cover seed beds or young transplants with floating row covers. Check periodically for aphids; if present, wash off with a shower of water.
Salad greens are best picked fresh, as needed, in the cool of morning. Wash well in a sink full of water, swishing leaves gently to avoid bruising. Spin or pat dry; then place leaves between damp paper towels in a plastic bag and refrigerate immediately.
The tender, young leaves and shoots of amaranth (Amaranthus tricolor) taste like spinach with a hint of horseradish, but they become bitter with age, so harvest young.
Plant when the soil reaches 20ºC, sowing six millimetres deep, 12 to 15 seeds per 2.5 centimetres. As the leaves begin to touch, thin to 15 centimetres apart.
Once plants have a good supply of leaves (around 50 days), pick individual ones and end buds to encourage branching.