A while back I made a decision that I wasn't going to buy supermarket salad leaves any more. It wasn't one of those big, announce-it-on-Twitter-and-write-a-blogpost-about-it things. More just a gradual realisation that I was fed up of drab lettuce that cost 10p a leaf when there was a world of green stuff to be grown and gathered without recourse to the shops. I already knew that bagged salads cost a packet, to the consumer, to the environment and to the workers who are exploited in their production. Then I read Charles Dowding's How To Grow Winter Vegetables and realised that, with a bit of planning, I could use my potting shed to grow greens year-round to supplement the foraged stuff.
Around six months on, it's so far, so good. I am eating homegrown/foraged salads three or four times a week, rather than letting a sad plastic bag of pricey leaves go limp in my all-too-tiny fridge. The picture above's fairly typical of what I am eating right now: there's some hairy bittercress, which is a weed that's growing in one of my raised beds and providing a fantastic crop of watercress-flavoured leaves; baby chard; 'Red Streaks' mustard leaves, 'Bulls Blood' baby beet leaves and some baby lettuce leaves.
Dowding's method is simple: pick the right varieties (winter lettuce, Chinese leaves and chard all do well over winter), fill any old container (a washing up bowl with holes cut in the bottom or a wooden banana box are good) with well-rotted cow manure, top with a thin layer of compost, then sow your seeds. (It's a bit more complex than that, you need to be aware of timings and sowings now may struggle more than those done in, say October. I'd recommend buying his book, it's a great read that will inspire you to extend your growing season into winter).
I didn't have any manure, so I tweeted @charlesdowding to ask if wormcasts from my wormery would be an acceptable alternative. "Even better!" he tweeted back, and we were off! I've sowed about six trays between September and now, and probably had 5-10 croppings of cut-and-come-again leaves off each. I guess I've been lucky with the mild winter we've had so far, but if the cold sets in my salad trays will be fine swathed in a layer or two of horticultural fleece. The quanitites aren't huge - somewhere between microgreens and cut-and-come-again leaves, but topped up with foraging finds, it's been plenty.
It's amazing quite what's still fresh and green and available for the picking right now in December, both the"weeds" in my garden and in other local green spaces. The aforementioned hairy bittercress is a banker, but I have also discovered that the leaves of the ubiquitous garden weed Oxalis corniculata var. atropurpurea or creeping wood sorrel are just as deliciously lemony as cultivated sorrel (although you have to be a bit careful not to eat tonnes of the stuff as it can (like a lot of things) be bad for you in very large quantities. Then there's dandelions and cat's ear (bitter but good in small quantities, who needs chicory?) and nettles (select only the fresh green tops) and chickweed (good for you) and violet leaves (a bit bland but a great bulking agent).
I was planning to get the seed sprouter out if the foraging got lean or the cultivated salads failed, but so far I haven't had to. Alfalfa's ok, but my own saladings are better. Now I am just waiting for an opportunity to feed all my friends and relatives a big ole plate of weeds at the next family gathering.