Learn how easy it is to plant a fall salad garden.
Easy to grow — and beautiful to boot — salad gardens are easy to love. Plant a fall salad garden. Lettuce and other salad makings are among the first crops to plant in spring, yet their fondness for cool weather also makes them great encore crops for fall. As a self-confessed salad addict, I often spend $5 a week on ready-to-eat gourmet greens when I can’t get them from my garden — reason enough to work up a little sweat planting a second season salad garden.
It’s a simple project that leads to fast rewards. Clear off a patch of ground in a spot that’s convenient to water, sow some seeds, and a fall salad patch will start spewing out tasty tidbits in only a few weeks.
What Salad Greens to Grow?
The major player in any salad garden is lettuce (Lactuca sativa), which comes in an amazing array of colors and textures. If you have partially used seed packets of lettuce leftover from spring, start with those varieties, because shard-shaped lettuce seeds often lose viability after only a year. Did your spring crop get tall and bitter before you could eat it all? Some of the frilliest lettuce varieties can’t wait to bolt when days are getting longer and warmer in spring, but in the fall garden they hold much longer. If you need to buy lettuce seeds, starting with a mixture of varieties is an effortless way to turn your salad garden into a tapestry of colors and textures. All the mail-order seed companies (see “The Seeds You Need,” page 58 in this issue) sell various lettuce blends, often called mesclun, that include a palette of leaf colors and forms.
Spinach makes a great fall salad green, too, and in many climates fall-sown spinach can be left in the garden until spring, when the cold-ravaged plants bounce back with amazing energy. Fast-growing radishes also plump up quickly when grown in the fall, and autumn is the best season to grow buttery-tasting baby beet greens. Scallions are a bit slow to grow from seeds, but you can be assured of a ready supply of tender green onions if you buy a slender bunch with roots at the supermarket, trim the tops back by half their length, and stick them into moist soil. See “Fall Garden Standouts” on page 57 in this issue for even more great greens for your second season salad garden. Finally, stud your patch with a few fast-growing annual herbs including dill, cilantro and chervil, which sprout and grow quickly enough to provide flavorful snippets for the salad bowl.
Ready, Set, Grow Salad Greens!
All the books say that salad crops need full sun, but up to a half day of shade is beneficial when you’re planting in warm, late summer soil. If the best site you have bakes in the September sun, install a shade screen on the west side of your salad patch. A short length of snow fencing or a piece of burlap attached to stakes will do the trick.
Lettuce and other salad greens have shallow roots, so soil preparation is a simple matter of clearing the space of weeds and withered plants, working in a 2-inch deep blanket of compost, and then mixing in an organic fertilizer at the rate given on the label. Spinach is a heavier feeder than other greens, so be generous with the plant food when preparing its fall home.
Some say that lettuce seeds need light to germinate, but the light that comes through a one-eighth-inch layer of soil will coax the seeds to life quite nicely. The easiest way to sow the seeds is to scatter them on the surface of a prepared bed, barely cover them with soil, and then pat the surface lightly with your hand. If you have clay soil that tends to form a crust over germinating seeds, cover the seeds with potting soil or compost instead of garden soil. Plant other salad garden crops about a quarter inch deep and at least half an inch apart.
Early fall is often a dry season, and salad greens thrive on moisture, so keeping the soil constantly moist is an ongoing challenge. Immediately after planting, the easiest way to keep the seeded bed from drying out at midday is to cover it with an old blanket or cardboard box on sunny days. Once the seedlings are up and growing, keep a watering can stationed at the edge of your salad patch, and give your babies a cool drink first thing every morning and again just before sunset.
If you think of leaves as solar panels, you’ll understand why thinning plants so that leaves of adjoining plants don’t overlap is so important. Begin thinning your salad patch as soon as the seeds sprout, and continue to pull up (and eat) crowded babies every few days. Thoughtful thinning also deters slugs, one of the few pests that bother lettuce and other leafy greens. Unlike large “garden” slugs, which are best trapped with shallow dishes of beer, lettuce slugs tend to be so small and numerous that it’s more practical to drench plants with cold, caffeinated coffee or tea at night, when the slimers are active. Caffeine is a neurotoxin that makes slugs writhe to death, but you must get it on them for it to work.
The key to enjoying crisp salad greens is to harvest them early in the day, when the leaves are plumped with water. You can harvest lettuce or mixed salad greens by pulling whole plants, picking individual leaves, or using scissors or a sharp knife to gather handfuls of baby greens. As long as you cut them off one inch above the soil line, the crowns left behind will quickly produce a new flush of leaves. Gather spinach, baby herbs and arugula by pinching off perfect leaves.
Don’t worry if an early freeze sneaks up while your salad patch is in full bore. Until the cold weather passes, throw an old blanket over the plants or cover them with a cardboard box held in place with stones or bricks. With protection, your salad veggies can easily survive several nights in the mid-20s. With luck, you might even have fresh salad greens for your Thanksgiving table.
Award-winning garden writer Barbara Pleasant’s newest book is The Complete Houseplant Survival Manual: Essential Know-How for Keeping (Not Killing!) More Than 160 Indoor Plants. E-mail your questions or suggestions for our Sow Hoe department to SowHoe @ Grit.com.
The Salad Seeds You Need
The seed racks disappear from many garden centers by midsummer, so you may need to order seeds from a mail-order company. Don’t worry about the wait, because most mail-order companies process and ship orders with remarkable speed. If you already have a favorite mail-order seed company, chances are good that they can provide the seeds you need. The sources listed here offer collections that make choosing seeds for your fall salad patch less confusing.
Kitchen Garden Seeds (CT), www.kitchengardenseeds.com;
The "Fall Salad Garden" collection includes packets of 7 great fall salad crops, including a painterly lettuce blend.
Nichols Garden Nursery (OR), www.nicholsgardennursery.com;
The "Eclectic Eleven" is an economical blend of almost a dozen assorted salad greens.
The Cook’s Garden, www.cooksgarden.com;
The "Salad Fresh Mesclun Cutting Mix" collection includes six excellent salad greens, including arugula and two red and green lettuce.