The Perpetual Salad Garden
By Elizabeth Cornell Fake, Fairfax Master Gardener
If you are one of those people who look askance at bagged supermarket salads, think about growing your own salad garden in a container. As with any container garden, two major factors determine the success of the project: the container and the soil. After that, all you have to do is think about planting and harvesting!
For a salad garden, bowl-shaped containers or window boxes at least 6 inches deep provide a good solution. Portability is key to selecting a salad-garden container. Once you start enjoying your own fresh salad greens, you will want to continue harvesting indoors at the end of the outdoor growing season. The container should be easy to bring inside. As is the case for any garden container, make sure there is adequate drainage through a half-inch hole in the bottom of the pot. Salad greens require a constant water supply but do not thrive in soggy conditions.
Fill your container with good potting soil from a garden store. Look for a soil containing a mixture of sphagnum peat moss and perlite that allows easy transit of air and water through the container. If you are starting your salad garden from seed, a seed-starting mix would be a good choice.
Most container gardens need fertilizer to make sure the plants have adequate nutritional uptake. Experts endorse two types of fertilizer and two different times for application. First, mix a slow-release organic fertilizer with the potting soil before planting. Choices include a commercial product or your own organic matter or compost. Then after planting, use some liquid fertilizer, again either a commercial product or compost tea mixed with water. Use the solution over a period of several weeks to get the garden started.
Most experts recommend starting with small plants ready to transplant into your container. Or, if you are patient and can wait for your reward, sow some seed to get started. Choose a variety of lettuces with different colors and textures. After you plant lettuce, add some salad greens such as arugula, mizuna or spinach. Depending on what you enjoy in your salad, consider the possibility of adding herbs such as dill, cilantro and parsley into the plant mix. Adventurous salad gardeners often plant nasturtiums, pansies, Johnny jump-ups and other edible flowers to make the finished salad a gourmet treat.
You will be ready to harvest your salad in about a month. It is a good idea to keep ahead of the growth cycle, as lettuces will bolt and go to seed if not harvested in time. Harvest when the leaves are 3 or 4 inches tall. Clip or gently tear the leaves about an inch from the bottom of the plant, and the next growth cycle will begin. Salad greens flourish in late spring/early summer, but will withstand summer heat if moved into the shade and watered frequently. Under the best circumstances, salad gardens produce three harvests from the initial planting. Be prepared to start again with new plants or seeds. Often salad gardeners keep three or four containers growing intermittently so there is never a day without freshly grown salad.