Salad days are here again and with this in mind my visit to Wendy Shillam’s city potager for a workshop on leaf growing could not have been better timed. After a disappointing lettuce season last year, I’ve been yearning for delicious homegrown salads and itching to crack open the seed packets and so when Wendy kindly offered me a preview of her “leaf lore” workshop I jumped at the chance to get some hands-on advice to galvinise my growing.
Wendy (whose garden features in the new edition of the London Garden Book) is a passionate advocate of growing fresh produce no matter how compromised your space is – fresh salad leaves and micro leaves punch above their weight in terms of vitamin and mineral delivery, so it’s worth growing even a few says Wendy. “So much of the food we eat is aged”, she notes, “fresh leaves have optimum goodness and are also a great source of fibre.”
Wendy’s interest in nutrition comes from a very personal place – diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in recent years, she successfully reversed the condition in just 9 weeks through changes to her diet, and has subsequently gone on to gain a qualification in nutrition. For her diabetes busting diet Wendy cut down on the calories but didn’t stint on her fresh fruit and veg intake, of which her homegrown produce was a significant part.
For the workshop Wendy ran through three simple techniques, which could be applied in any garden large or small. First up companion planting. Wendy’s three small raised beds necessarily have to work hard so in a bed that already had two purple artichoke plants and some garlic just poking its head above the soil line Wendy sowed some mesclun. This mix of lettuce, rocket, chervil and endive seeds came from Vilmorin (an historic French seed company distributed in the UK by Thompson and Morgan) and it promised to make a delicious “salade compose”. Even a mixed salad sounds nicer in French! To sow, Wendy just lightly hand forked the soil (which she had recently dressed with some bought compost) and sprinkled the seeds generously around the bed and tickled them in. When the seeds germinate she will use some for micro leaves, and harvest the rest as they get bigger on a cut and come again basis.
Next we did a bit of cheating, courtesy of a shop bought pot of parsley from Waitrose. Wendy’s a big fan of parsley, using it not only for cooking but as a salad leaf too. It can be slow to germinate so co-opting a ready grown pot is a great way to steal a march on the season. The parsley was densely packed into its little black poly pot and by teasing the roots apart Wendy was able to multiply ‘one’ plant into about 15 individual parsley plants. These she planted in a sunny bed, in soil pre-warmed under a glass cloche, spacing them no more than 10cms apart. “These should last several years” Wendy told me, “and will self seed around too.”
Wendy’s final technique was utterly ingenious, a scaled down version of square foot planting that can only be described as “square inch” gardening. A square of chicken wire was the template for a sowing of red and green Salad Bowl leaves, with Wendy sowing a couple of seeds in every other square in a quincunx pattern (like the five on a dice). This technique is ideal for successional sowing and the wire has the added bonus of keeping slugs at bay, according to Wendy (they don’t like moving over it, apparently). This alone is enough to recommend it to me as my salad crops last year were negligible due to slug damage. As an extra slug deterrent Wendy planted some little viola plug plants around the edge of the wire. The slugs love violas even more than they love baby lettuce leaves, and the viola flowers that do survive are edible, and perfect for prettying up a salad.
Throughout the summer Wendy and her husband Mike not only enjoy salads from the Rooftop Veg plot but they eat them in situ too, adding to the holistic aspect of the enterprise and topping up their Vitamin D levels at the same time. Wendy’s illness, and subsequent recovery, confirmed to her why her little veg plot is so much larger than the sum of its parts and why the effort in tending it is worth it. “Sowing seeds is so easy” says Wendy “it’s really the work of a moment but the rewards are so great”.
I can’t wait to put Wendy’s ideas in to practice – the high predation rate from slugs, rodents, birds and badgers on the allotment means that this year I’m sticking to growing salad crops in my garden where space is much more at a premium and where the Rooftop Vegplot approach should work well. I’m even wondering whether the chicken wire will also deter our neighbour’s cat – the other predator in my home garden. Time will tell – but that’s what this time of year is all about, the growing season stretches ahead of us and optimism as well as Spring is in the air!
Wendy’s Leaf Lore worship runs this Friday, 10th March; for more details of this and Wendy’s other workshops please go to