Five unusual and exciting salads

Mixed salad with society garlic flowers.

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

1. Minutina

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.

Minutina or buckshorn plantain growing with red cos lettuce.
Minutina or buckshorn plantain growing with red oak leaf lettuce.
The leaves have a nice crunch and this pretty, unusual shape.
The leaves of Minutina have a nice crunch and this pretty, unusual shape.

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.

The vividness of the underleaf of Scarlet Emperor adds colour to any container garden or salad.
The vividness of the underleaf of Scarlet Emperor adds colour to any container garden or salad.

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.

Nip out the pretty tips to encourage it to grow bushy. Nice in salads.
Nip out the pretty tips to encourage it to grow bushy. Nice in salads.

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!

Mixed salad with society garlic flowers.
Mixed salad with society garlic flowers.

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.

20 thoughts on “Five unusual and exciting salads”

  1. Such a nice mix! I also found stridolo underwhelming when I sowed it last year so put the plants out in a woodland border to flower. Pretty little bladder campion like white flowers. The plants held up throughout the whole winter and the leaves really beefed up.
    Out of curiosity I tasted one- really good! Been enjoying the pea shoot like flavour and crunch salads. Just thought I’d pass that on.

  2. I have had success over the winter with claytonia aka winter purslane. Also lambs lettuce. Both have a mild flavour that goes well with other winter salads such as red mustard and mizuna, which can get quite strong. Chervil has done well over winter too and adds an aniseed flavour, if you like aniseed.

  3. Two handsome lettuces to try from Moles seeds are ‘Navarra’ and ‘Mohican’. Prettiest ever is ‘Descartes’ on ebay.I am the kitchen gardener for a cafe in Suffolk and trial lots of varieties each season.

  4. Love the scarlet emperor! I’d add the lettuces arctic king and marvel of four seasons as two of my favourites…also great for growing through winter! Maybe I’ll put some arctic king and scarlet emperor together 😛

    1. Hiya Dan, I’ve read that scarlet orach is hardy in winter, but mine has not been happy as the weather has got cooler – so I’m not sure how good a winter a crop it really is. If you try it I’d love to hear from your experience.

      1. Hey Mark. Are you in London? I’m up in Manchester so if it’s struggled down there I don’t fancy my chances…I might try starting it in very early spring if it’s cold-hardy. Is it quite fast-growing?

        1. I’m in Newcastle now Dan – so I guess quite similar to you. It’s not dead, just not looking like it is very happy. I will leave a couple of plants in their pots over winter and see if any pull through…. Might be a bit late for sowing now – unless you have somewhere under cover.

          1. I’ll keep that in mind Mark 🙂 I do actually have access to a little poly-tunnel but it might be a bit late even in there with not much light now. I have been meaning to experiment with some fast-growing lettuces under cover this late though…

  5. Hi Mark,

    This year I lived of my homegrown salads which included frilly leaved mixture, green leaved mixture, borage (slight lemony flavour and lovely blue edible flowers), giant red mustard, mizuna, rocket and for the first time I added baby radish leaves, baby turnip leaves, chives, thyme, rosemary and nasturtium flowers. Even stirfried all the leaves as they become bigger and tougher. First time pumpkins this year (jack a lantern) helped fertilise lots of pumpkin flowers but three actually took and only one lived on still waiting for I to mature and turn orange thinking it might not make it. Thanks for your opinion on your salad leaves it gives informed options for next year.


  6. Thérèse Jaifar

    Very interesting article, Mark. Lots of ideas to try. Thank you. I just bought minutina seeds from the Real Seeds 10 days ago, actually. I am sowing some this week. I hope it’s not too late! Well I don’t really mind. I always try things at supposedly wrong times. I started cumin seeds on 8 September and they all germinated. So I have cumin growing in my spare bedroom. It looks happy for the moment.

  7. My favourite salad this summer was a handful of nasturtium leaves pounded with two tbls of olive oil and 1 tbls of pine nuts and 1 tbls of grated Parmesan cheese. This was spread over the surface of halved beef tomatos. Completely heavenly-try it.

  8. Paul Collingwood

    Hello, I usually put Reine de Glace, Harvest of 4 Seasons, mizuna, Beetroot, wild rocket, the odd spinach grown from plugs at the allotment planted into blue mushroom baskets to bring to the glasshouse at home. The thing is there are so many different combos to use throughout the year. Love sprinkling old packets of different varieties of lettuce and see what turns up! Thanks Mark for your different ideas too.

  9. My tree spinach was badly attacked by leaf miners this year – the first time I’ve had that problem, but the first time I’ve tried growing it in this garden. I think they arrived from the fat hen weeds that seem to be everywhere around!

    1. Oh, dear, that’s a shame, Emma. I’ve had bad leaf miner in the chard and sorrel (as usual) but the tree spinach hasn’t been touched. I was hoping it might be fairly pest free – I’ll remember to watch out for leaf miner next year. Thanks Emma.

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