You may be lucky to have grown up with gardening parents, yet most of the truly fine gardeners I know still consider themselves amateurs. A good gardener is someone who makes it look easy, but the truth is that growing a garden is actually a lot of hard work. If gardeners gave up growing the hard stuff, however, in favor of the easy things like salad greens they would not only be more successful, but better fed.
Salad greens are high in nutrition, and rank the highest nutrition per square foot of space used in the garden. In a single square foot you can grow several whole salad bowls worth of greens, while one tomato plant takes up three times that amount. Salad greens are relatively free of pest and diseases, while tomatoes succumb to blight easily and quite frankly, are not as beautiful to look at as a bed full of greens.
My love affair with salad greens started in 1980, when a friend brought me a packet of arugula seeds from her trip to France. I struggled to read the French planting instructions, yet in good faith, sowed the seed in a long row next to Black Seeded Simpson and summer Bibb lettuce. In less than a week, the row was filled with tiny green leaves, and by the second week it was ready to taste.
That first sharp bite and bitter flavor left me wondering why anyone would savor this harsh bitter salad green?
I left it to grow for another week, meanwhile looking up recipes for a sweet creamy dressing that might tame the bite, that only increased as the leaves matured. To my surprise, the piquant greens took on a completely different personality once coated with dressing, and suddenly, I could not get enough. The search was on for more European salad greens, and the more unfamiliar, the better.
Since many salad greens are fragile and can barely survive the trip from the garden to the salad bowl without wilting just a bit, I’ll often make the salad dressing ahead of time in the bowl, before I dash to the garden for a bouquet of herbs, green and aromatics. Salad greens thrive in our cool Vermont summers, so I’ve grown just about everything I can find; Claytonia, Good King Henry, Mache and kale, several types of arugula, radicchio and puntarella chicory, shungiku and bok choy and every mustard invented.
I adore the spiky hot flavors of chervil and cress, blended with the crisp aromatic leaves of fennel and lemon basil, smoothed out by a few leaves of soft butterhead. I rarely make the same salad twice, which makes it hard to repeat the good ones.
Every dressing needs to be carefully balanced so it does not overpower the subtle flavors, and brings out the best in the tender leaves.
Growing a garden can take time, and requires learning a few things about how to prepare the soil, how to sow seeds, and how to maintain a healthy garden from seed to harvest. And not everyone is interested in cultivating a garden because it takes time and effort. Yet growing a garden can teach us so much about food so I encourage you to give it a try.
Growing a Salad Lover’s Garden , allows the gardener to jump over some of the hurdles that a traditional garden may harbor: seeds germinate fast in almost any type of soil, they are not fussy about sun or shade, and can be grown in a window box in a south facing window, or in a kitchen garden.Harvest is typically 30-45 days, less than a third of the time it takes to grow a tomato, pepper or broccoli plant, so what’s not to love about growing salad greens?
Start with one plant that you really love, such as salad greens. Grow everything that you can find. Completely saturate yourself. And from that you can springboard to the others plant families.
Knowing how to grow food and feed yourself (and your friends) is the coolest thing in the world. Borrowing a concept from Austin Kleon’s book, Steal Like An Artist, it’s okay to copy other gardeners ideas and designs. So go ahead, copy my salad lover’s garden design from my book. You’ll be glad you did.