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Salad days in the garden

For the cost of one bag of mixed salad from the grocery store you can buy a few seed packets that will keep you in salad much of the fall, winter and early spring.

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The trick is to focus on creating healthy soil and planting the right crops for the right time of year.

A big cause of failure for folks here is planting salad crops in the spring. But these plants want cool, even cold, weather. So this is the time to choose a full-sun spot in your yard and remove the grass and weeds from a 5- by 5-foot square to expose the native sandy soil. Sprinkle on the following soil amendments: 20 pounds of cheap dog or cat food nuggets (as they decay they release a range of plant nutrients), a 20-pound bag of cheap clay cat litter (not the scented or scoopable kinds; clay helps sandy soil hold water) and a 50-pound bag of cheap compost or humus from a garden center. Turn all this under with a garden shovel, and mulch the new garden with a 4-inch layer of pesticide-free grass clippings, wood chips from a tree-trimming service, raked leaves, or coastal hay from a feed store.

This mulch will keep the soil damp and cool between your deep weekly waterings, and as it decays will add rich black humus to your sand while suppressing weeds. Earthworms encountering the pet food will multiply, further improving your soil.

Let your garden "ripen" for two or three weeks after giving it a deep, one-hour watering weekly using a small sprinkler set to run very low. As the dog food decays it will become unattractive to raccoons that may initially try to dig it out.

Starting from seed

Now comes the best part: choosing and planting the ingredients of your homegrown salad bar. Just find a big seed display at a garden center and select five of these easy-to-grow crops:

Sweet 100 cherry tomato (perhaps buy seedlings at planting time) • Romaine lettuce • Tendergreen mustard spinach • Broccoli (the leaves are delicious raw or cooked) • Swiss chard, red or white • Osaka purple mustard (spicy) • Bok choy • Daikon • Nasturtiums (pungent flowers and leaves) • Ornamental kale (for colorful salads) • Red oak leaf lettuce • Green wave mustard (for a sinus-opening zing.) • Scallions (plant onion sets 6 inches deep) • Arugula • Radishes (leaves edible raw or cooked) • Mizuna • Tyfon

All these are easy to grow from seed. Part the mulch layer with your hands to expose five, evenly spaced, 4-inch-wide strips of the improved soil. Drag your fingertip or a stick down each strip of soil to make a 1-inch furrow, sprinkle the seeds evenly about 1 inch apart, cover them with about a half-inch of soil, then hand water until thoroughly dampened. Hand water daily for 5 minutes for two weeks for good germination, then deeply weekly thereafter. In five days or less you should see seedlings popping up.

Your first harvest will be the "thinnings" you pull up when about 6 inches tall to make room for maturing crops that will end up about 4 inches apart in each row. Snip off the roots of these tender young plants, rinse them well and use them in salads to hint of the grand harvest to come.

To get the most of your salad crops, use scissors to snip several lower leaves off of each plant as you need them. You'll get a steady harvest as they mature until the return of intense heat and humidity in the spring.

Pest-free naturally

These crops have few pests, especially since they will be growing in the vitally healthy soil you created as your first step. Aphids can be blasted off with a garden hose as part of your weekly watering, and caterpillars and stink bugs can be handpicked and stepped on. When your crops are about 8 inches tall, you can give them a final feeding to encourage extra growth. Mix three tablespoons of fish emulsion from a garden center in a gallon of water and drench one row of salad greens. Make a gallon of this mix for each row. If you prefer pesticide-free chemical fertilizers, sprinkle 10 cups of either Sunniland Palm 8-6-6, or Lesco brand 16-4-8 lawn fertilizer (not their weed-and-feed) evenly all over the entire garden then water deeply. The latter fertilizer will give you exceptionally fast tender growth because of the 16 percent nitrogen.

On a smaller scale

Try tucking these crops into sunny nooks in your landscape, especially if you don't use a chemical lawn service. Just use those same soil amendments in each spot for maximum health and growth. Many of these crops are colorful and bear beautifully textured leaves, complementing a landscape design while putting fresh produce on the table.

For patio gardeners

Can't be bothered with mixing up big batches of soil amendments for a few pots of salad greens? Just use your favorite potting mix in 3- to 5-gallon pots in full sun, bury six to eight crushed eggshells about 6 inches down to supply slow-release calcium, then feed veggies monthly with 1 tablespoon of fish emulsion in 1 gallon of water. When you see what the fishy stuff does for your plants, you won't mind the smell, which fades quickly.

Salad days in the garden 10/10/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 13, 2008 1:17pm]
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