Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Easy Spring Salads

1268 words, Copyright, 2006, Harvest McCampbell
Published by the Hoopa Valley People Newspaper 2/28/06
Posted here with permission

Hardy and delectable spring salad greens can be easily grown starting today! While our Northern California soils may still be too wet to work, containers and raised beds can give us a jump on the growing season. They warm up faster, drain better, and we can hand select the soil mix to best serve our needs.

Your early salad garden can be as simple as planting in a few empty discarded pots, recycled kitchen containers, or used tires. The sturdy plastic bags that take out foods and dog biscuits often come in can even be pressed into use in a pinch. Simply poke some holes in the bottom for drainage, fill with planting mix, and place them somewhere they won’t get tipped over or stepped on and you are ready to go.

Tires, although some what unsightly, make superior raised beds. The dark color warms the soil, speeding the growth of plants. They can be placed right out in the garden or landscape. A spot under or near a deciduous tree is ideal. Salad greens benefit from winter and early spring sun, but once summer arrives they prefer shade. You don’t even need to dig the weeds out where you want to place your tires. Simply cut or mow the weeds, place a few layers of cardboard trimmed to the size of the tire down first, and set your tire on top.

If you have a budget for containers check out your local nursery, department, or membership store. You can often find deals on oak barrels, or large clay and plastic containers that will look great in your landscape. If you are growing for a large family a simple raised bed from 4 to six feet long, by 3 feet wide can be constructed from new or recycled lumber. If you hope to grow carrots as part of your salad mix it is a good idea to lay a piece of ‘Hardware cloth’ under your raised beds.

Hardware cloth is available in several mesh sizes, and rather then actually being a cloth, it is made from gopher proof wire. I find it holds up well in the garden and lasts for a number of years. This is a good thing, because it is a bit expensive. A layer of rocks under your beds can sometimes be as effective, however, if the gophers find a way in they can certainly wreck havoc in a short time.

When growing in containers I like to prepare a mix of compost or potting soil,. I add a source of nitrogen, a small amount of wood ash, and regular dirt from my yard. Winter and early spring soil mixes also benefit from an addition of sand to keep the soil from getting too soggy (just in case it continues to rain and rain and rain.) Your compost or potting soil provides your mix with a nice texture and should make up ½ to 1/3 of the bulk of your mix. The plain old dirt provides minerals and substance and should make up no more than ½ of your mix – unless you garden in a humus rich loam. Sand does not contribute nutritionally to your mix, and as such it should be no more than 1/3 total. Nitrogen rich items like Ready Grow with chicken manure, barnyard blend, composted or dried horse or steer manure, and coffee grounds will insure good growth. Wood ashes can also be added as a source of potassium and other minerals.

It helps to gather your ingredients, a wheel barrow or garden cart, and a large empty can or other scoop. Mix 4 parts each of compost or potting soil, dirt, and sand. Add to this mix 1 part each of your nitrogen source and wood ashes if available. When your ingredients are well mixed, take a good look and decide if it will suit your needs. With experience you will gain ideas on just how you want your soil to look and feel. Once you have fine tuned your recipe, simply stir up as much as you will need and fill your containers.

Before planting seeds, water the mix well and let it settle. You may find you have to top the containers up a few times before the soil settles to a nice even surface. The soil should be about an inch or two of the top of the container. This will prevent soil and seeds from escaping during watering as well as allowing sunlight to reach all seedlings.

At last we are ready for seeds! If you or someone in your family gardens, there are probably seeds languishing in a drawer or cupboard losing all hope that they will ever get to grow. However, if you don’t have seed that you can beg or borrow, nice salad blend mixes are sold under the name “Mesclun.” This is very cost effective, as you get everything you need in a single packet. If you are raiding Auntie’s seed drawer, radishes, carrots, lettuce, green onions, beets, Swiss chard, colorful cabbages, and kale can all be mixed together and broadcast over the surface of your containers. After sowing, it is a good idea to cover the seeds with a bit of potting soil or compost to help them stay moist. Sprinkle gently with water, being careful not to wash the seeds away.

The last planting step is to look around and see what you have that you can press into use as bird and cat protection. Both birds and cats love to dig around in newly prepared soil. The birds will steal your seed, and the cats . . . Well, you know what the cats will do. A tent made from an old light colored sheet is ideal. It lets in light and warmth, won’t over heat the soil, and it allows evaporation of excess water. A tent of news paper or light colored plastic also works well. With the plastic you need to be careful that it does not get too hot underneath. Seeds and seedlings can fry right in the ground if over heated. And newspaper is likely to collapse in the rain. If your budget allows it, you can always invest in floating row covers or garden netting. Both are available through most catalogs and many nurseries.

Check your containers every day. The soil needs to remain evenly moist for the seedlings to grow. Once the seeds have begun to germinate, you may need to raise or remove the coverings to allow for light and growth. I sometimes ‘plant’ a collection of sticks into my containers and beds until the plants take off. This can hold the covering up away from the little plants, and even without a covering it helps detour those scampy cats and birds.

Now you are a gardener! Within a month or so you can thin your plantings, the thinnings will be your first tasty salad greens. Once you have thinned the young plants to stand several inches apart, you can begin pinching individual leaves for salads and sandwiches. You may have radishes ready to pull in 45 days or so. Baby carrots and beats will quickly follow within 60 to 90 days. While you’re other greens will produce over a long period. Swiss chard and kale can live for up to two years. They are likely to take over the containers once the shorter lived lettuces have gone to seed.

Once your greens do go to seed, you will be able to pay your auntie back, share seed with friends, and start again, with a fall salad garden.

1268 words, Copyright, 2006, Harvest McCampbell
Published by the Hoopa Valley People Newspaper 2/28/06
Posted here with permission

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