Jackie French: Oh baby! The choicest salad leaves
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Jackie French: Oh baby! The choicest salad leaves

Baby eating is not condoned in polite society, despite Swift’s Modest Proposal written to try to shock affluent British householders into seeing the appalling rates of starvation of Irish kids. The exception, of course, is when it comes to salad leaves.

We have finally learned that the most tender leaves do not come from a full-grown lettuce, witlof, chicory plant or endive, but from baby leaves. And the freshest, cheapest baby leaves are home grown.

They are also incredibly easy to grow.

Baby salad leaves are the most tender and with regular snipping can provide greens all year round.

Baby salad leaves are the most tender and with regular snipping can provide greens all year round.

Photo: Yulia Yunovidova

Choose a weed-free garden spot or, better still, a large pot or basket filled with potting mix, or even, in order to stay clear of any possible soil-borne organisms, plant seeds on cotton wool and they will flourish with judicious watering as well as feeding with soluble fertiliser at about a tenth of the concentration advised on the packet (as it will all be absorbed by the cotton wool and not be washed away into the surrounding soil). Note: You will need to experiment with this – if your leaves go brown at the edges or just go brown, brown, brown all over then you’ve overdone the feeding; if they are pale and yellow, they need more sun or more tucker or more water or all three.

Scatter seed 3-4cm apart and snip with fine, sharp scissors (nail scissors work well, ordinary large, clumsy kitchen scissors not so much) as soon as they are large enough to be tempting. Some, like lettuce, will grow more leaves. Others, like beetroot, might but possibly won’t. If the seedling has more than one leaf, try leaving at least one leaf standing to encourage the tiny plant to keep sprouting.

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And of course if you are thinning out any of the veg below, keep the baby discards for salads – from parsley to celery, nasturtium and silver beet. But don’t assume all baby leaves are edible. Rhubarb got its nickname ‘‘mother-in-law’s spinach’’ for a reason, and many of the greens high in oxalic acid will do you no good at all, especially if you eat a lot or regularly. (We call our veg domesticated plants for a reason – we have bred them not to kill us after dinner.)

But, if that hasn’t put you off, these are some baby leaf plants you might like to try if you are a baby leaf beginner:

Lettuce

Lettuces, of course, are the first choice as mini leaves, tender, sweet and bred for over 8000 years not to turn bitter – which they still stubbornly do if left starved or under-watered for too long. The non-hearting varieties are best for mini leaves, like Cos and the curly leafed ones, but there are varieties especially bred to be picked as babies, like Salanova lettuce that grow like a hearting lettuce but have masses of baby size leaves.

Cos Dragoon has been bred to be mini, too, with thick but tender leaves. It can be sown at any time of the year almost anywhere in Australia as long as you have water and sun for it. It is slow to bolt even if you forget it for a few weeks.

Elf is another fabulous mini variety, with compact hearts with a crisp, old-fashioned texture, a bit like an Iceberg lettuce but tiny. It can be grown year round too and is disease resistant.

Mizuna

If you want fast and drought-resistant veg, plant mizuna. There are green and red varieties available and all can be picked as minis. They’re quick growing, slow bolting with a slightly bitter flavor. You might just get greens (or reds) in a fortnight in hot weather, but after three or four weeks in cooler weather it is still an almost certainty. The longer ones/leaves make a superb bed for a poached egg, with a touch of olive oil-based salad dressing.

Shungiku

Shungiku, otherwise known as edible chrysanthemum, is excellent if picked when about 10-15cm tall before they turn tough or bitter. Look for ones bred to be picked for salads, rather than larger ones that will be better stir fried.

Tatsoi

Tatsoi are more commonly grown as full grown (and fast growing) greens for stir frying, but you’ll get salad leaves in about three weeks after sowing. They survive summer heat reasonably well if you keep watering them in hot weather.

Bekana

Bekana is another veg originally from Asia that is a bit like a mini Chinese cabbage. It has ruffled leaves, a sweet taste, can be picked after three weeks and, if you keep feeding and watering and picking, you may get a full year’s cropping. They can be sown at any warm time of year.

Mustard Greens

Frilly golden mustard greens have been bred to look stunning on a large white plate, as well as to give a tang to salads. They are bit too sour for me, except as a small addition, but they do look wonderfully elegant, both growing and under a neatly cooked piece of fish. Grow at any warm time of year and pick after three weeks and then keep picking till you lose interest and they decide to stop.

‘Baby Leaf’ mustard greens are just what their name implies. They have thin, deep red, curly leaves that are sweet as well as spicy and mature in three to six weeks from sowing. Keeping cutting all summer and, possibly, all winter too, but remember that if they grow too big they will be tougher and more sour than spicy.

Beetroot leaves

I must admit that I am wary of eating uncooked beetroot leaves – they can be high in oxalic acid. But if you don’t go overboard, ie make them into green smoothies and gulp them down daily, they can be a lovely addition to a salad’s texture. ‘Ruby Lips’ had been developed especially for bright red mini leaves, sown and picked year round with pickings every week if you feed and water well. Sow from now until winter.

Sorrel

You can pick any sorrel as a baby. In fact only pick the young leaves whether they will be for the salad bowl or cooked into a sauce or soup. Baby sorrel has a tang. Large sorrel is sour and not in a good way.

Spinach

Any spinach can be grown as a mini, but Black Glove is a variety developed to be picked tiny. Like all spinach it’s best sown in autumn or very early spring, or in winter in hot climates. It bolts both as a mini or full grown in the heat, and becomes toughish too.

Radish

Cheat. Plant them, pick the leaves as small as possible before they turn tough or slightly furry, then watch as they regrow and then turn large, with their radish root happily swelling below them as if they never had a first picking to disturb them. Babies plus adults: not even Jonathon Swift proposed eating them both.

This is the week to:

  • Gloat over all the seeds to plant in spring.
  • Measure the daffodil leaves just beginning to spring up and wait for the daffs themselves.
  • Consoling myself meanwhile with a few Paperwhite and Erlicheer jonquils – not many, as its been too dry (and I hope the rest survive).
  • Buying just a few fruit trees … yes, I have sworn I will not buy more and, double yes, the weather predictions are for a hot dry spring and summer but I have a deep longing to see a few more trees grow for my grandchildren, even if it means lugging the water from each shower to keep them going till it rains.
  • Keeping the bird and animal water stations clean and feeling grateful every time I turn on a tap.