The time for salad eating coincides nicely with the first salad veg in the garden: young leaves of mizuna and mitsuba, tender and spring fresh; the first soft red mignonette lettuce hearts, not-too-spicy rocket, which will become hotter during the heat of mid-summer, crunchy fennel, firm red cabbage, the first basil leaves for pesto and tomato salads, great bunches of parsley and coriander. Two minutes picking and you have the basis for an exceptionally good meal.
Unless, of course, you didn't plant any ten weeks ago, or if your mizuna has vanished somewhere under the weeds and you forgot to thin out the lettuces, so there is just a tall haze of mixed leaves.
No matter. Pick out the weeds and use the leaves. Fresh from the garden salads can be a matter of mixing and matching what you have, a skill that produces both superb meals and excellent cooks.
Most salad greens just need watering, weeding and feeding - the better you treat them, the more they'll give you. Lettuce can be tricky - feed them too much and they won't heart or may turn mushy in the heat and humdity; don't feed them enough and they'll be bitter, a true revenge on any gardener who neglects them. I grow red mignonettes because they are the most forgiving of all lettuces, except perhaps the similar Buttercrunch. They also grow in heat or cold, wet or drought, which is useful, as we can have all four in the space of a week in this climate.
The most difficult salad green is coriander, which is convinced it has gone through winter and needs to bolt to seed as soon as it feels chilly and then hot. Theoretically, coriander should be impossible to grow effectively in Canberra, as there are very few weeks without both chill and heat in summer. You can trick your coriander though by planting it under a deciduous tree in spring, thus giving it maximum sunlight early on. As the weather warms up the leaves grow above it, giving it dappled shade through summer. Keep your coriander watered (drying out will send it to seed, too) and preferably mulched, with is the equivalent of insulating your house. Feed with liquid fertiliser every fortnight and pick often. If it puts out flower heads in spite of all your care, treat it sternly and keep picking them off. If you pick every two days you can keep the flower heads under control and more leaves coming.
And if you don't have salad greens, this is an excellent time to plant them. You'll be munching by the end of January. Seeds will give you a crop about as fast as seedlings (the seedlings will be set back by transplant shock) and be much cheaper. If you don't have a garden, scavenge a styrofoam box, add drainage holes and potting mix, put it on a sunny patio or even a table by a sunny window and plant. You'll be surprised how much parsley you can grow in a box. Large hanging baskets or, of course, large decorative pots also make excellent salad gardens and a summer of happy munching.
Salad veg to plant now: basil, beetroot, celery, celeriac, carrots, coriander, corn (for a superb mid-summer salsa), cucumber, lettuce, radish (small, round or long, black or red), mitsuba, mizuna, parsley, potatoes, red cabbage, tomatoes, watermelon (go for the small, quick maturing varieties), yacon (a crunchy root veg) and zucchini.
This week I'm:
■ Trying to mulch faster than the weeds grow;
■ Hunting for the lettuce I know I planted somewhere;
■ Picking the first cherries, plums, apricots, peaches, lettuce and, at last, lots of basil;
■ Trimming dead roses and watering well, to encourage a good flush of new flowers by Christmas;
■ Cutting off dead fern leaves, pruning tree fern fronds, old hellebore leaves etc; and
■ Urging Bryan to keep the mower set higher (he keeps putting it down and I keep putting it up). Bryan believes that grass grows more slowly if you shave it close to the ground. I insist that it grows faster and uneven bits get rotary hoed, letting weeds germinate in the bald spots. Summer grass just needs a trim to get the tops even and decapitate the weeds.
A note on chopping herbs
Chopping is an art. If you lack either the skill or dexterity, try using a pair of scissors to snip your parsley and coriander. The result won't be as gloriously fine as what a chef's knife will produce, but scissors are fast, easy and make it extremely difficult to slice your fingers, which can a) hurt and b) result in you spending Christmas Day in accident and emergency. If you do use a knife, remember you must cut down on a board, with one hand on the handle and the other flat on top of the knife. All fingers are thus kept safely out of the way. Never chop after or during an argument, no matter how therapeutic it feels, or in a flurry just before guests arrive, or while trying to answer exactly how Santa makes it around the world overnight.
How to prune a hedge
This seems a matter of controversy in the ACT, with heritage hedges hacked to bare wood - a great way to kill a hedge, or part of it.
But there are alternatives to either hacking back or letting a hedge grow unchecked. The first is the simplest: prune at least every two months in warm weather, so the hedge doesn't grow excessively. If you must prune hard, don't go back to bare wood.
But if your hedge is already growing like a green dinosaur, you can still reduce it. This takes time, dedication, lots of work, and many scratches, but is better than losing the hedge.
First of all, reach into the main trunk of the hedge, and prune back a third of the branches, right back to the trunk. The hedge will look a bit depleted, but still attractive. You may want to cut out the top branches, too - especially if you need a long ladder to get to them.
This will not be easy. Wear long, thick sleeves, gloves and goggles so you don't get speared in the eyes by bits of twig, and choose a cool day - or days - if it's a long hedge.
As soon as you see new growth from the trunk, cut out another third of the older branches, again, right back to the trunk. This may take two weeks, or six months - it depends on the species of hedge and time of year. (It's unlikely to put out new growth in mid-winter, or in hot, dry weather.) Water and feed well - the hedge may have used up a lot of the nutrients nearby, and the ground under big, thick hedges is often dry.
When you have a good bush of new growth, cut back the remaining third of the branches. You now have a newly skinny hedge. Trim it at least twice a year, preferably four times - a light haircut to a) keep it neat and b) keep it controlled to a civilised width.
A lot of work? Yes. But then so is the upkeep of a heritage building. A glorious old hedge is worth it.
Summer salads and slaw
Peach and coriander salad
4 large peaches, skinned and finely chopped
juice of 1 lime
1 red onion, finely chopped
2 bunches coriander, finely chopped
Mix fast, so the lime juice stops the peach from browning. No other dressing needed. Stores in a sealed container overnight in the fridge but goes a bit gluggy after that.
Orange and fennel salad
This is best made with a crunchy aniseed-flavoured fennel base, but it's not bad made with finely chopped bronze fennel tops, too.
4 cups orange segments, peeled and free of membrane
¼ cup black olives, chopped
1 red onion, finely chopped
2 cups thinly sliced raw fennel bulb, or cup very finely chopped fennel tops.
Red cabbage and nectarine slaw
¼ red cabbage, finely sliced
4 nectarines, stoned and finely chopped
juice of 2 limes or lemon
2 tbsp olive oil
Mix swiftly; leave in sealed container overnight in the fridge, for the flavours to blend and the cabbage to soften. Keeps for up to three days.
2 cups radishes, sliced so thinly they drape over your finger like wet paper
1 tbsp finely chopped parsley
4 tbsp coleslaw dressing
Mix. Keep in a sealed container for up to three days in the fridge.
Roast tomato salad
Glorious with good crusty bread.
4 tbsp olive oil
16 Roma tomatoes
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
Spread the oil on a baking tray. Halve the tomatoes and arrange on the tray. Bake on high for 20 minutes or until the tops begin to char and the juices have run on to the tray. Scrape both tomatoes and juices into a bowl and add the balsamic vinegar. Serve hot, cold or tepid. Keep in a sealed container for up to three days in the fridge.