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Growing Salad Greens

Martha Stewart Living, March 2006

Markets across the country offer an ever-growing array of salad greens, but nothing can match those picked right outside your kitchen door. The amazing thing is that growing your own greens isn't that hard. All it takes is a patch of soil (one that's three feet by twelve feet can provide a family with salads nearly year-round) and the right planning and planting. Arugula, endive, radicchio, tatsoi, mizuna, spinach, and mustard greens are just some of the many backyard possibilities.

Soil preparation is important no matter the season: Turn the soil with a garden fork, break up the clumps, and then spread one-quarter inch of compost or bagged dried manure on the bed. Work it lightly into the soil, until the surface is granular but not smooth. Mix seeds (of same season and growing characteristics) in a bowl and, with your fingers, distribute evenly across the area, one-quarter to one-half inch apart. Settle seeds into the granular gaps in the soil surface. You can use a garden rake if you're careful not to move the seeds around too much. Water the bed lightly to prompt germination. For superlative results, cover the bed with a spun-bonded row cover, then water through it. The seed mixture should germinate over the next three to seven days, depending upon the season and your zone. Later, when a group of greens begins to look tired, clear the section and repeat the prep-and-plant process.

Plant cool-season greens as soon as you can work the ground. The sun will raise the temperature of the top quarter-inch of soil enough for the plants to sprout. A row cover will make things even better, sheltering the plants from shifts in temperature and moisture and also assisting with insect control. In the cooler days of early spring, use a heavier-weight row cover.

Once your frost-free date arrives, you can start sowing seeds for tender heat tolerant greens, such as amaranth, orache, and cultivated purslane. If you switch to the lightest-weight row cover, you can still get protective benefits without trapping too much heat. A number of cold-tolerant greens can also be grown far into the hot months if you provide them with some shade. Catalogs and some garden centers sell plastic mesh called shade cloth; look for one that provides 30 percent to 50 percent shading. During summer, be sure to water frequently(one inch of water per week) and harvest promptly.

Begin the switch to cool-season greens as soon as daytime highs are consistently less than eighty degrees. Many of these greens will not germinate when temperatures are above eighty, but by choosing your day to sow and using a shade cloth, you should be able to keep your succession going. Once highs drop further into the seventies or below, take off the shade cloth. After the fall equinox, growth slows radically as the days shorten. So don't wait for a planting to reach one-half inch before you plant the next. Instead, plant a new crop at least once a week (the farther north you are, the shorter the interval should be). Make sure the bed stays covered, and, if you're in a snowy region, lay a protective layer of clear or white plastic over the row cover.

Be careful not to sow plants too close together or to overwater them; either act can cause rot. (So can frequent rain.) Be sure, too, to clear off all cut leaves. If left strewn about the bed, they can become the source of spreading rot. Flea beetles love all members of the mustard family, which includes quite a number of the best salad plants. Members of the beet and spinach families are sometimes bothered by leaf miners. Spraying chemicals on something you're going to eat would be a shame even if it worked, but it really doesn't for these insects. Fortunately, if you use the row covers, you will have no pest problems-and perfect salads.

Most gardeners stick to a limited number of greens, but it can be nice to grow and sample several kinds -- and to discover your favorites. The greens that appear below in more than one category can be the heart of your salad mix during the growing season.

amaranth, chervil, corn salad, green wave mustard, komatsuna, lettuces, mei qing choi, mibuna, orache, purslane, tatsoi

arugula, chervil, claytonia, corn salad, curly endive, dandelion, escarole, hong vit, kale, lettuces, mei qing choi, mibuna, minutina, mizuna, mustard, radicchio, red-rib chicory, shungiku, spinach, tatsoi

arugula, cress, curly endive, hong vit, lettuces, mibuna, mizuna, mustard, spinach

beets, chard, mizuna, sorrel, tatsoi

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