Diarmuid Gavin: Get your 'seven-a-day' by growing my tasty plant picks
It was reported last week that the traditional five-a-day is no longer sufficient to keep us healthy and living long. The new recommendation is to have seven portions of fruit and veg each day. So, what could be better than starting to 'grow it yourself' (GIY) this new growing season? An open sunny position is required for vegetables. It's the sun that will produce a productive crop. If your soil isn't great, build a raised bed. Three sleepers on top of each other, in a square or rectangular form filled with topsoil that you bring in will do the job. It doesn't have to be very deep. Improve existing soil with good humus material - well-rotted manure or the contents of your compost patch.
Here are my recommendations for seven plants to fill a GIY salad bowl:
1. Lettuce germinates easily from seed. Sow successively every fortnight to keep yourself in fresh salad throughout the summer - bear this in mind when you are marking out your lettuce plot, leaving room for the next lot. You want to avoid a glut and avoid leaving lettuce too long in the ground so that it bolts (it shoots up its flower stalk and the leaves become bitter). I like 'Lollo Rossa', with its curly red leaves; it looks and tastes good and is slow to bolt. 'Little Gem' is a good cos variety - perfect for Caesar salads. If you're tight on space, 'Tom Thumb' is small butterhead lettuce and can be grown in containers or windowboxes. I've had a small but steady supply of green leaves from the lamb's lettuce I planted in the winter. It's extremely hardy and has a distinctive flavour.
2. For some zingy spring onions, I'd recommend 'White Lisbon' as a problem-free variety that's good for the beginner gardener. For some variety, try 'Redmate'. The crimson colour will look pretty in any salad, and if you forget to harvest them they will keep growing into red onions!
3. I love roasted beetroot paired with goat's cheese so we'll definitely be sowing some 'Boltardy' seeds this month. As its name suggests, it has good bolting resistance and I've found germination very reliable. When sowing, you'll notice it is quite big. This is in fact a husk containing a couple of seeds so these will need thinning out as necessary but small beet leaves are also good for a salad bowl.
4. Radishes are one of the quickest-yielding crops: you can be sprinkling these on your salad in about four weeks' time. Sow some seeds now but keep some back to sow every four weeks. Radishes should be harvested when ready - if you leave them in the ground, they become woody and not so tasty. My top variety here is an old one, 'French Breakfast 3', which has red roots and a white tip, and will crop reliably.
5. Even if you've no outside space at all, you can grow cress, as you only need to sprinkle these seeds on a few layers of damp kitchen towel on a plate or container. Cover in a plastic bag to retain moisture and place in a dark space. As soon as they sprout, pop on a sunny windowsill; keep the growing medium (kitchen paper!) damp and you will have an edible crop within two weeks.
6. You can also get growing tomatoes now. They are available as small plants to buy and grow on, or you can start from seed. Recycled yoghurt pots are the ideal size to sow a few seeds in. Once germinated, thin out and just leave the strongest seedling in this pot. 'Tumbler' is tasty and decorative if you only have space to grow them in hanging baskets, and 'Sungold' is a delicious cordon which can be cultivated both indoors and outdoors.
7. Edible flowers such as calendula and nasturtium can go straight in the ground now and will add a quirky touch to your salads this summer!
Slugs and snails are a problem for lettuce, so you will need to keep them at bay. You can also buy small plants from the garden centre for growing on, which will be less susceptible than your tender seedlings.