By Rhiannon Allen
If your family is like mine, you eat salads year-round, but look forward to the special treat of the summer salad bowl. Gone are the restricted choices of store-bought lettuce. Here at last are the luscious offerings from local farms and your own garden. Few things are more rewarding than filling up that salad bowl with freshly harvested local greens. You don’t even need a garden bed, since the development of salad greens for container planting. And you don’t need full sun either, since most salad fixings appreciate relief from midday sun.
And talk about cheap! You can, of course, buy plant starts from nurseries, but the majority of salad greens are easy to grow from seed. If you don’t see varieties that appeal to you from Point Roberts vendors, buy from an American seed catalog or pop over to West Coast Seeds on Elliott Street in Ladner. If you buy from West Coast Seeds, ask for a sticker so that you can bring pre-cleared seeds into Point Roberts.
There are so many easy-to-grow salad plants that you need never eat a boring salad. The difficulty might lie in knowing where to start. Lettuces are just the beginning – but oh, what a beginning! Flat-leaf, curly-leaf; chartreuse, green or deep merlot in color.
Whatever you desire, some vendor has the variety for you. And speaking of variety, what better idea than to plant a variety yourself? Either assemble a hand-picked assortment or pick up a premixed seed set, available as a package of “mesclun” (mixture) seeds or as pellets that contain multiple seeds in a small clay ball.
Whichever lettuce you pick, plant it now in a rich, moisture-retentive soil before our weather becomes too hot and dry for these cool-season plants. The reason that lettuce leaves are soft is that their thin cell walls do not retain moisture easily. That’s why picked lettuce wilts rapidly if left at room temperatures, and will quickly turn slimy if left in a plastic bag.
While this leaf softness makes for a delicious salad, hot dry weather stresses lettuce and encourages it to bolt. That means it devotes its energy to the production of the next generation. Speaking of that, however, consider leaving one lettuce plant to flower for pollinators. You could even harvest a few seeds to see if they will germinate when planted next year.
If our summer remains cool, or if you have a semi-shady vegetable bed, why not plant a few lettuce seeds every couple of weeks to provide your salad bowl with a continuous supply of succulent greens? In our climate, you should be able to keep planting fresh seeds right up until the end of September. You won’t get large plants from a September seeding, but you might be able to harvest a small number of leaves. Furthermore, there is a possibility that the plants will winter over until spring, especially if you provide some protection like a plate of glass propped over the row of seedlings.
Don’t restrict your salad bowl to lettuces. If you are lucky enough to have Claytonia (a.k.a miner’s lettuce, Siberian lettuce) growing wild in your garden, pluck some for your salad bowl. The strong, peppery taste of arugula – both the familiar annual variety (Eruca) and the perennial “wild arugula” (Sylvetta) – can really spice up a salad. Corn salad (a.k.a mâche) provides a great salad boost, although I advise not sowing it until mid or late August, since it is a cold-season green.
Finally, take a look around your vegetable and herb garden, because you might be surprised at the number of greens that can be added to your bowl. In our garden, many plants grown for other reasons find their way into our salad bowl, particularly when the leaves are small, tender and immature. Spinach, garden sorrel, beet greens, cabbage, chicory, chard, kale, basil, parsley, and chives are just a few that might be waiting in your garden. Even some garden weeds such as chickweed and purslane are edible, as any chicken
will tell you.
And don’t forget your flower garden. Did you know that both the leaves and flower petals of nasturtium are edible? The flowers of most herbs are also edible, although the mouth feel of herb petals is not as pleasant as that of the large, soft petals of nasturtium. The petals of violets, calendula, and marigold are a better choice for brightening up a salad visually while providing a pleasant mouth feel.
Use all flowers in moderation, however, as they can be strongly flavored. And never use a flower in your salad without first checking to see if its petals are, in fact, edible. There is a reason other than their beauty, after all, for why we think of flowers as ornamentals rather than food.