What’s your favourite crop to grow in containers?
Impossible to chose perhaps, but salad would be well up there for me. It’s so easy and quick to grow, tastes incredible when freshly picked, and you can enjoy a diversity of flavours and colours that money can’t buy.
Favourite salad leaves that I grow every year in my containers, include rocket, land cress, mizuna, pea shoots, tatsoi, fava bean shoots, mustard red giant, and sorrel, as well as essential salad herbs like mint, chives, oregano, and nasturtiums. Just thinking about eating all these leaves, packed with flavour, plucked minutes before, might excite your taste buds!
But there are hundreds of other salad leaves to chose from in the seed catalogues. It’s fun to try a few new ones each year. I experimented with ten leaves this year, and share more information on the five I liked best below.
Beautiful and great for less sunny places
Salads might not have a reputation for looking beautiful. But mix up the leaf colours (contrast the vivid green of Black Seeded Simpson lettuce with Orach Scarlet Emperor for example), leaf shapes (nasturtiums, chives, fennel and salad burnet have distinctive, pretty leaves for example) and heights of your salad plants, add in a few edible flowers, and you’ll be able to create something to rival many ornamental displays.
If your balcony / patio / growing space is overshadowed by neighbouring buildings or trees (mine is and I know many others are, too) then salads also make a good choice. Most will grow fine with just three or four hours sun a day.
Five super salad leaves
This is a wild plant, often known as buckshorn plantain – not a promising name for an edible plant, perhaps. But the young leaves have a pretty and unusual shape, a pleasant crunch and a mild but good flavour. Delicious. Each plant produces a good supply of leaves for several weeks – just harvest the outer leaves and they keep coming. As the plant gets older, the leaves do get tough, eventually becoming almost inedible (don’t worry: you’ll have had lots of salad from them by this time). Pull them up at this point or leave them to flower and collect the seeds for next year.
2. Orach, Scarlet Emperor
This is a magnificent, ancient crop, worth growing for its vivid colour alone. It will brighten any container garden and any salad you add it to. It also has a fine taste. It’s mild – a little spinach like – but distinctive and with depth. As a bonus, it grows tall, so will add height, making more of your space and looking good, too.
Keep pinching out (and eating) the pretty tips, to encourage it to grow bushier. After three or four months the leaves start to get less tender and, while still pretty, they lose the vividness of colour. They can still be eaten in salads or cooked like spinach (nice flavour) – or you can simply start again. I sowed it in April this year, pulled it up in July (eating the leaves, of course) and sowed another crop to replace it. Both sowings did well.
3. Lettuce ‘Reine de Glace’
Lettuces may not be the strongest flavoured salads, but they are one of the most productive in containers (particularly if you harvest the outer leaves, letting the plant regrow). And, of course, they make an excellent base for a salad: a canvas to which you can add colour and flavour.
The trick with lettuces in containers is finding the best varieties. My favourites include Black Seeded Simpson and Red Oak Leaf, but Reine de Glace might even surpass both of these. It has a good crunch and a superb flavour. I’ll definitely grow it again.
4. Tree spinach
As the name suggests, this is another tall one that will add impressive height to your salad display. It also has vibrant and beautiful magenta markings on its leaves. Pick the growing tips to add to salads. The flavour is mild – nothing amazing – but good. And they look so pretty in a salad. The older leaves are best cooked. You can let it grow huge, but I suspect that it is probably best grown for three or four months and then sown again – to make the most of the young and beautiful leaves. That is my plan for next year.
5. Society garlic
There are many edible flowers, but not all of them have much flavour (nasturtium being one obvious exception). Society garlic flowers is one that does. It has a strong (but, I’m pleased to add, not overpowering) garlic flavour. They are also lovely to look at. You only really need one plant as it will keep producing flowers for several months. A small handful will add colour and flavour to any green salad – and it will look pretty in your containers, too!
The less successful trials
The other salads I tried for the first time this year included Iceplant (the slugs ate most of it, unfortunately), red malabar spinach (didn’t grow well because the summer here was not warm enough), Persian cress (grew well and tasty), and Stridolo (underwhelming flavour). Often it takes more than a season to learn how to grow a new crop so I will still try these again.
Your turn – what’s your favourite salads?
If you’ve tried any new salads this year or have any you’d particularly recommend I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.