Weekend Gardener I: The Salad Bowl Garden

To Fill Your Bowl

Vegetable salads are, in my opinion, the perfect warm-weather food: simple, fast, nutritious. A bowl of curly leaf lettuce, ripe tomatoes and crunchy peppers, dressed in the culinary equivalent of a sheer tank top -- olive oil cut with fresh lemon juice and seasoned with freshly ground pepper and sea salt -- is something just this side of heaven. Or maybe you prefer a plate of beefsteak tomatoes, sliced thick, with sweet basil and -- if you're feeling decadent -- mozzarella. Yum. For me salads are best when everything is grown right outside my kitchen door.

Before you assume I have wads of free time, let me explain. I began growing salad ingredients myself out of sheer disorganization. I either forget to buy salad fixings, or I end up eating at the office all week, and the whole lot wilts into a gruesome pile in my fridge. But, with a salad-bowl garden, you can pick exactly how much you need, when you need it, at the peak of flavor. And it doesn't require acres of land: a sunny, well-drained three-by-four-foot plot of ground or a few terra-cotta pots, set out on a patio or balcony in the full sun, will happily accommodate a season's worth of salads.

Creating Your Own Salad-Bowl Garden

You can start with either seeds or seedlings from local garden store or nursery. Seeds are definitely an economical and fun way to go -- especially when gardening with kids -- but you need to allow about 6 to 8 weeks for most to get going. If you're starting later in the spring, you will probably want to consider seedlings to start your garden.

Try three heads of red- or green-leaf lettuce and the same of your other favorite kind of salad green -- romaine, Bibb (also called Boston or butterhead) or even spinach. Vine-ripened beefsteak tomatoes are hard to beat for taste, but they can average a pound or more each. If you usually make only small salads, Italian (or plum) tomatoes might be more convenient. Green peppers and/or cucumbers round out your garden nicely. (Resist the temptation to plant more than two of anything except the lettuce unless you're planning to open a garden stand.)

For container gardners:
Plant three heads of greens per 18-inch pot, and one tomato or pepper per bucket. Cukes, being low, sprawling things, don't fare well in pots, so avoid those if you're short on ground space.

A word about tomatoes and peppers:
Whether working in pots or in the ground, stake or cage peppers and tomatoes. Otherwise their heavy fruit will bow their stems, causing the stalk to snap or the fruit to sit on the ground and rot.

Lettuce:
Lettuce can be picked leaf by leaf almost from the time the first one emerges. Usually, though, you should harvest the whole heads before the worst of the summer heat hits when the lettuce "bolts" (sends up a stalk and goes to seed) in the heat, and the leaves turn bitter. Or you can let them go to seed, and you'll have fresh plants sprouting in the early fall, right where the first ones were. During those searing midsummer days, when greens are poor, turn to chilled tomato- and cucumber-based salads, and your salad plate will always be full.

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