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Backyard salad bowl

Fresh, heathful salad fixings can be only steps away in your own garden patch. A small amount of preparation pays off in bountiful flavor, savings and fun.

The cost of one head of iceberg lettuce from the grocery store will buy a few seed packets for flavorful and easy-to-grow salad makings you can harvest for three or four months. Our delightful autumn and winter cooldown can trigger the annual pleasure of growing your own salads quickly, inexpensively and easily.

We organic gardeners employ many methods to bring life to our miserable, sandy soil. Here is a simple, inexpensive way to establish a winter salad garden. Choose a spot in your yard that gets full sun, and remove the grass and weeds from a 4 foot by 4 foot square to expose the native sandy soil.

Sprinkle onto that square the following soil amendments: 5 pounds of dolomite (to eliminate excess acid and supply calcium and magnesium), 10 pounds of cheap dog or cat food nuggets (as they decay, they release a broad range of nutrients), a 25-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-thick layer of pesticide-free grass clippings, wood chips from a tree trimming service or raked leaves. This mulch will do wonders to keep the soil damp and cool between your deep weekly waterings, and as it decays it will add rich black humus to your sand.

As earthworms encounter this smorgasbord of decaying pet food, they'll multiply like crazy. Let your newly created garden "ripen" for one week after giving it a deep one-hour watering, using a small sprinkler set to run very low.

Now comes the fun part _ choosing and planting the ingredients of your home-grown salad bar. Just find a big seed display at a garden center and select four of the following easy-to- grow crops:

Romaine lettuce, broccoli (the leaves are delicious raw or cooked), Swiss chard, Osaka purple mustard (spicy), bok choy, sorrel (French salad green that tastes like rhubarb), New Zealand spinach, Red Russian kale, daikon (crunchy white root as well as greens), endive, radicchio, nasturtiums (pungent flowers and leaves), ornamental kale, red oak leaf lettuce, snap or snow peas (pods and leaves are delicious raw), sweet basil (add the flower spikes to salads, too), scallions (plant onion sets 6 inches deep), cilantro, mizuna, arugula, radishes (leaves are edible raw or cooked).

All of these are very easy to grow from seed: Just use your hands to part the mulch layer, as you would your hair with a comb, to expose four evenly spaced, parallel 4-inch wide strips of improved soil. Drag your fingertip or a stick down each strip of soil to make a 1-inch-deep furrow, sprinkle the seeds evenly about 1 inch apart, cover them with about 1/2 inch of soil, then gently hand-water the garden till it is thoroughly dampened.

Hand-water the patch daily for 5 minutes for two weeks for good germination, then deeply once a week thereafter. (Bare-soil gardens need daily waterings indefinitely; that's why you have your deep layer of mulch.) In 5 days or less, you'll see seedlings pop up.

Your first harvest will be the "thinnings" you pull up when the plants are about 5 inches tall to make room for maturing crops that will end up about 4 inches apart in each row. Just snip off the roots of these tender young plants, rinse them well and use as plate garnishes or combine them in salads to hint of the grand harvest to come.

To get the most of your productive salad crops do NOT pull up the mature plants. Use scissors to snip several lower leaves off of each plant as you need them; that way, you will get a steady harvest until the return of intense heat and humidity nukes your garden.

Try tasting leaves that are unfamiliar to you, such as those of peas and broccoli, long eaten elsewhere in the world in other cultures. Pea blossoms are delicious, too.

These crops have few pests, especially since they will be growing in the vitally healthy soil you created. 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 _ diluted fish emulsion, a light sprinkling of Ringer Lawn Restore or dried poultry manure would be terrific and easily obtained at a garden center.

If you don't wish to create a separate salad garden, try tucking these crops into empty little sunny nooks in your landscape, especially if you don't use a chemical lawn service. Use the soil amendments listed above in each spot for maximum health and growth, and soon you'll be picking fresh salad makings from between your ligustrums and philodendrons. Since many of these crops are colorful and bear beautifully textured leaves, they can "finish" a landscape design while putting food on the table.

John A. Starnes Jr. is an avid gardener and rosarian who studies, collects, cultivates and hybridizes roses for the diverse regions of Florida and Colorado. He can be reached at: THE.GARDEN-DOCTOR