Leaves for the autumn

By: PAUL McKAY

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UNLIKE NORTHERN Europe, Portugal and the Algarve in particular often have very bright sunny days throughout October and November.

While the UK populace batons down the hatches and warms themselves with winter soups, here in Portugal we can still be picking cucumbers and tomatoes through until late autumn.

Outside eating in summertime, although wonderful in the holiday brochures, usually disappoints here in Monchique. Often it is far too hot to eat outside in the middle of the day and there are also a number of flies around!

When the cooler days of October and November arrive, outside eating can become de rigueur again. Winter salads provide a refreshing meal and are an appetising reminder of why so many of us chose to abandon the grey north for the sunny south.

But now is the time to think about the accompanying leaves for salads – lettuce and Chinese leaf. Both can be started off over the next few weeks and provide you with a variety of salad leaves over the winter months. Do not be tempted to think lettuces from the market will do – the taste of the home grown product is infinitely superior, containing far more nutrients if picked and used within the hour.

Chinese leaf

Until I grew Chinese leaf myself I never had much time for the stuff. It was often quite chewy with a strange aftertaste. Grown at home, however, Chinese leaf is incredibly crisp with a delicious fresh flavour.

• Sow seeds in a seed tray anytime in July or August. Germination takes about a week.

• Prepare a bed in a sunny, free draining site and add well rotted manure or fertilizer.

• When the seedlings have a few of their true cabbagey leaves they are ready for transplanting. Transplant carefully keeping as much of the soil around the root as you can. This should be done on a cool cloudy day or early evening at a distance of 30cm from each other.

• Water the transplants in well for the first week.

• Keep the soil moist but not waterlogged and weed free.

• After three months the plants should be ready for harvesting. To have a continuous supply it is good to begin harvesting some when quite young.

• Chinese leaf can be eaten fresh like lettuce or used in a stir-fry.

Lettuces

The loose leaf lettuce varieties are the best to grow this time of year as they grow reliably and rapidly. Red or green varieties do as well as each other. The big issue with lettuce is germination. They will not germinate in hot temperatures so you may well need to wait until mid September for cooler weather. They are ready for picking six to eight weeks after germination.

I have two methods of growing lettuce and I cannot decide which is best. The first is to sow in seed trays, and transplant and space as in the Chinese leaf. Harvest when mature.

The second method is to sow thinly in permanent bed. After germination, thin plants to stand about six cm apart. Allow to grow thickly blocking out weeds, removing outside leaves for use in salads as and when required.

Remember it is also possible to get a quick crop of spring onions to grow this time of year as well as radishes.