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Leaves much to be desired

You don’t need a whole garden plot to produce a variety of salad greens.

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What’s the difference between a vegetable garden and a salad garden?

A vegetable garden requires commitment and perseverance to keep it producing through the seasons, despite bugs, fungal blooms and weather bombs. You need to be willing to dig a bit, get the stakes out and cut up your old pantihose to make ties to keep the garden on the straight and narrow.

A salad garden demands little of this. The rewards, dollar for dollar, make it attractive economically (assuming you eat your daily dose of greens). The vital ingredient is, of course, lettuce or, botanically speaking, Lactuca sativa. This includes the majority of the greens we enjoy in the average salad, although not all. Popular greens such as rocket (Eruca sativa) or arugula (Diplotaxis tenuifolia) are different species, but they still grow in a similar way. A mesclun salad is simply a mix of the greens we eat in a salad, but which are not from the lettuce family. Although the original mesclun mix was Italian, today they include Asian greens or brassicas.

The most difficult greens to grow are hearting lettuces such as Lactuca “Great Lakes” and “Ice King”. They are probably best grown in the vegetable garden, because they need a longer growing time before harvesting and the head needs to be picked in one go. One of the biggest rewards of growing your own salad greens is that you can pick them just before eating, ensuring freshness and little waste.

These greens are easily grown from seed, but do not oversow. As the seed is very fine, it is hard to spread them out, so they will need to be thinned. Sow seeds directly into a garden bed or pot, then once the young plants develop, harvest some to thin them out. Alternatively, sow them in seed trays and prick out the individual plants once they are old enough – when they’re 4-5cm high. As the roots will still be quite small, use an iceblock stick to lift them with as much soil as possible, and replant immediately. Make sure the transplanting area is well watered first and, ideally, transplant in the evening if the site is in full sun, as water-hungry seedlings are inclined to sulk when moved.

Greens are best grown in full sun in the winter months, but in summer – especially in hotter areas – semi-shade is fine, if not preferable. If full sun is your only option, cover the plants with shade cloth during hot spells, or if your greens are in the vegetable garden, plant a row of a tall-growing crop such as corn to create shade.

In daylong heat, it’s hard to keep the water supply constant and this can stress plants and lead to bolting, or going to seed. Bolting will occur through lack of water, overcrowding or planting in the inappropriate season, so check you have the correct variety for the time of year. It is tempting to use bolted plants for seed, but seed stock should be those plants that have performed best.
Collecting seed is easy and in some cases the greens can simply be left to set seed themselves. Don’t let the whole patch go to seed, though, as this is a waste of growing space. One seeding plant of each variety will produce abundant seed.

The seeds follow the flowers, obviously, and are ready to harvest when the plant begins to wither. Place a paper bag over the seed head, tie with a rubber band, remove from the plant and hang the bag upside down in a dry place. After a few days, give it a good shake and the seeds should be heard rattling inside. Label the bag and store in a cool place until the next planting season, which will depend on the variety and your climate.

Snails and slugs are the main enemies of lettuce and other greens. The most effective organic method of dealing with them is to go outside at night with a bucket and torch and collect the offenders, especially after rain. Pop them into a plastic bag and freeze them, then add them to your compost with a sprinkling of lime, or feed to a muscovy duck. Once you’re on top of the problem, a weekly patrol will keep populations manageable.

Watering through spring and autumn is only needed every second or third day, increasing to daily, or even morning and night in summer. During drought, though, as the heat increases, be careful not to overwater, as pushing the growth along in extreme conditions will cause bolting or other stress-related problems such as mildew. Mildew can be fixed with a dose of baking powder mixed with water, but the best prevention is shade and regular watering.

Add extra flavour to your salad mix by growing aromatic herbs and edible flowers. If you grow clumps of violas or aromatic herbs and the odd rambling nasturtium along the edges, your garden will be healthier and in many cases prettier.

If you are not already a convert to growing your own, why not fulfil any New Year resolutions to improve your health and well-being by creating a bed of fresh greens – you’ll save money, too.

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