how does your garden grow - kentish salad
cradlebridge market garden in appledore is home to what could well be kent’s most surprising microclimate, where locally-grown produce is harvested almost all year round without recourse to artificial heating.
proprietor james perkins has been growing salad here for nine years and has 16 polythene tunnels, each 120-feet long, in which he grows nine types of baby salad leaves, ranging from the well-known wild rocket and chard to the more exotic red pak choy and bulls blood, as well as a selection of traditional lettuces.
the varieties which james grows change depending on what is in fashion with london’s top chefs and customers of food4, both of whom he supplies. wild rocket, mizuna and tatsoi are perennial favourites with the chefs, while russian kale and lettuces such as lollo rosso and red oak might be popular one year but less so the next.
growing salad requires constant attention from james and his part-time assistant as there is a constant cycle of leaves being harvested and new batches of seeds sown. at the height of summer the fastest-growing leaves, such as red and gold streak mustards, will be cut 14 days after sowing, whereas rocket takes around three weeks to mature.
james sows the first seeds at the end of february and his work continues until christmas. this long growing season is perhaps surprising given that the plastic tunnels are unheated and, for much of the year, the ends are left open so that the air can circulate and damp-loving diseases are avoided. however, these tunnels are incredibly effective at creating a warm environment in which the salad flourishes and the humid heat they generate can be felt even when standing a few feet away from their entrances.
until very recently all of james’ salad leaves were cut using kitchen scissors – back-breaking work, considering each tunnel produces 150-200kg of leaves.a skilled person could cut 20kg in an hour, but as the cutter tired subsequent hours of harvesting would result in a lower yield.thankfully, james’ recently-acquired cutting machine can harvest 60kg of leaves in 30 minutes and cuts the salad leaves in such a way that the quality is comparable with hand-harvested produce.
after cutting, the leaves are then collected and packed without being washed or treated, so they can be delivered within 24 hours of being picked. the quick turnaround means that the salad leaves which food4 provides last fantastically well, in stark contrast to supermarket salad packets, which can turn to sludge within a few days of purchase. jonathan parker, owner of food4, reports that he has consistently had positive feedback from customers about the mixed baby leaves still being fresh over a week after delivery. he suggests that customers store them in the fridge in an airtight bag to keep the leaves fresher for longer.
replacing scissors with a mechanised cutting machine is as high-tech as it gets at cradlebridge market garden – james uses an old fashioned push-along seed hopper to plant his seeds and a bespoke seedling planter for his lettuces. despite its simple approach, the farm yields high quality baby salad leaves and lettuces, thanks to the huge amount of tlc which james devotes to ensuring his produce meets the highest standards expected by chefs and discerning consumers alike. the proof is in the eating – his leaves are flavoursome and long-lasting and are well-suited to a wide range of recipes.
if you want to try james’ leaves, find out more about my promotion with food4 which gives london and kent residents a free fruit & veg box.
a version of this article appeared in the kent on sunday newspaper on 23 august.