Sunday, March 22, 2009

how to grow a salad garden

Steph and I went to a great class yesterday at Common Grounds. It was called "How to Grow a Salad Garden." Perfect timing, given that I'm about 4 weeks into my first container garden of leafy greens. The class was taught in a small kitchen in the back of the store by Jodie Main. Jodie is a local food and garden writer who specializes in edible landscape design. Every one of the twenty-five or so chairs was occupied. I worried at first that two hours on a folding chair in a packed room was going to get uncomfortable, but the time flew by and I learned a lot.

The class began with Jodie talking through the various greens she had brought with her from her own garden: green leaf lettuce, ruby red chard, miners lettuce, nasturtium, cutting celery, spearmint, onion chives, garlic chives, french thyme, lavender; this is just a sampling -  the list went on and on. As she talked about each item, she handed it off to a volunteer from the class, who tore everything into pieces onto a giant platter. Over the course of the first hour or so, the growing platter of greens was turning into the most diverse salad that I had ever seen. 

After the first couple items, Jodie paused to make the dressing. She smashed a few cloves of garlic, sprinkled it with a generous amount of kosher salt and chopped it. Then she mashed it into a paste with the back of a fork, added the paste to a small bowl, and whisked it with extra virgin olive oil and basalmic vinegar. Then she turned back to the greens and edible blossoms and continued to talk us through the items. As she did, the room filled with the most delicious aroma. This was going to be one fantastic salad!

In the second half of the class (as we munched on the salad, which was fantastic indeed), Jodie talked about various ways to plant seeds and starts. I learned that I should be fertilizing my container every other week with fish emulsion (I bought some after the class and applied it to the garden this morning) to feed my greens. Leafy greens are cold weather crops, meaning that they like sun in the winter and shade once it starts to get warm out. You can plant salad crops twice per year - once in late October and again around this time of year - to have fresh salads all winter and spring. In June, it will get too warm for the greens and they will bolt - stalks will shoot upwards and eventually flower (though before that happens, I plan to replace the greens in the container with some tomatoes and other warmer weather fruits and veggies).

We learned a couple of different ways both to plant and harvest the greens. The most common planting method is to make a hole in the dirt that's about 3x as deep as the seeds you plan to plant, put a couple of seeds in each hole, cover with dirt, and pack the dirt down. When you plant this way, once the crop grows you can harvest by pulling up the whole bunch (roots and all), cutting at the base, or you can cut outer leaves and allow the center to continue to grow. Another method of planting is broadcasting - you sprinkle seeds over an area fairly densely, then rake the area and top with more dirt. This lends itself well to the "cut and come again" method: the greens will grow very densely and once they get 4-5 inches high, you can grab a handful and cut about 1" above the dirt. The greens will continue to grow so you can harvest again once they again reach 4-5 inches tall. This works best with greens that grow upright.

I learned a couple of good ideas for battling the squirrels that have been digging in the container: apparently they really hate spearmint. Which is handy, because we actually have some growing behind our house (pictured). Jodie recommended putting a handful of leaves in the blender with water and spraying this on the garden. Or she thought you might even be able to put leaves or branches of leaves in the container. I chose this method - this morning, I tore up mint leaves and sprinkled them over the container. Hopefully this will deter the "fuzzy tailed rodents" (as JR likes to call them). I will report back on whether this successfully ends my battle with the neighborhood squirrels.

Probably the most interesting thing I learned during the two hour class had to do with making cuts from a plant to create new starts. This can be done with any woody herb (sage, thyme, basil). The demonstration used a sprig of italian oregano. Here's how it went:

The growing nodes, when they are planted in dirt and cease to get any light, somehow know that they should grow as roots instead of leaves. Isn't that amazing?

At the end of the class, we planted seeds to take home with us. These will stay in the house in a sunny window until they are big enough to plant outside. It is perfect timing: by the time my seeds turn into starts big enough to plant, there should be space in the container (created by the greens we will eat in the meantime). My sampling includes: creamsicle nasturtium, butter lettuce, cilantro, spinach, and Jodie's lettuce (she didn't remember exactly what kind it was, but we learned how to take the seeds from the flowers that had bolted from her crop last year).

Here's how the garden looks this week:

Stay tuned for more updates!

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