by Marlene Condon
By the time spring and warm weather arrive, I am really in the mood for fresh salad greens. If you would like to grow yourself a salad, it’s not too late to get some seeds into the ground!
Greens—those leafy veggies that have green edible foliage—are not difficult to grow and they are full of nutrients. They are low in calories but high in vitamins A, C, and folic acid, as well as the minerals calcium and phosphorus. Greens are also a good source of iron, and they add fiber to your diet.
When you think of greens, your first thought might be of lettuce, and there are many kinds of lettuce to choose from. But there are other greens that, in my opinion, are actually a lot more flavorful, such as spinach and Swiss chard.
Most greens do best in spring in our area, because the heat of summer causes them to bolt (start flowering), creating a bitter taste in the leaves.
You must be certain that the soil is not too acidic (which is typically the case in Central Virginia) because greens grow best in nearly neutral or only very slightly acid soil. Buy a home soil-testing kit to ascertain the pH, and add limestone, wood ashes, or bone meal if the pH is less than 6.5.
The fact that your greens are mostly leaves means that they need a good supply of nitrogen. You can amend the soil with compost, aged animal manure, or nitrogen fertilizer.
Greens grow rapidly and need a good supply of water (hard to come by these days). They must have about an inch of water every week, which, in normal years, they would get from spring rains. However, if a week goes by without this much rain falling, make up for the shortfall yourself to keep the plants tender and mild tasting.
There are quite a variety of leaf lettuces (also known as “looseleaf” lettuce) to choose from, especially if you buy your seeds from a catalog. (If you do not normally receive seed catalogs in the mail, check out gardening magazines at the public library for seed sources.) Leaf lettuce does not form a hard round head like the popular head lettuce that is sold in grocery stores. Instead it consists of loosely joined leaves that grow in a circle around a central point. There are red-tinged varieties that add nice coloring to your bowl of salad and I highly recommend that you try them for an artistic touch!
You should sow the tiny lettuce seeds as early in the spring as your soil can be easily worked. NOTE: It can be difficult for eager gardeners to delay planting until the soil has dried out from melting snow or spring rains. But smart gardeners are patient souls who know better than to tread on wet soil to avoid compacting it.
Be very careful not to sow the seed too thickly because it has a high germination rate and you will not only waste seed, but also bring about work for yourself. Lettuce needs to be well thinned, with enough space between individual plants that they just miss touching each other. Try to pick lettuce every day so you can enjoy many fresh salads before warm weather hits.
Spinach is my favorite green for the garden. I never cook mine because it makes such a flavorful salad ingredient when it’s raw. It is delicious with homegrown radishes and green onions, and perhaps some store-bought fresh mushrooms. Add a hard-boiled egg and perhaps some bits of crumbled bacon and you do not even need a salad dressing for a taste-treat delight! (However, I’m sharing my favorite salad dressing with you later in the column.)
Sow spinach seeds as soon as the soil is workable in spring. Spinach goes to seed in warm weather, with the leaves becoming tough and bitter and thus inedible.
Seeds should be planted one inch apart. Seedlings need to be thinned to three inches apart as they grow and you can eat the thinnings. Most varieties of spinach have thick leaves that are crumpled or “savoyed” and grow as a rosette.
If the soil is acid, add some lime. You might also want to spread mulch around your plants to keep mud from splashing onto them during rains.
You can eat individual leaves as soon as they are big enough to be worth taking, using scissors to snip them off so that you don’t pull up the entire plant.
If you want fresh greens during the summer months, your best choice might be to grow Swiss chard. Chard is planted four to five weeks before the last frost date, with about 8 seeds per each foot of row. Seedlings (which can be eaten) are thinned to stand about 8 to 10 inches apart. Leaves can be picked as soon as they are 6 to 8 inches long and eaten raw in salads, which is how I use this vegetable.
Mature chard is 20 to 24 inches high and it has a deep strong root that can even survive through the winter months with some protection. If the plants get large, pick only the inner leaves that are no bigger than 10 inches or so if you want to eat them fresh. The outer leaves will be less tender and courser in flavor, but older chard can be stir-fried or steamed (use as little water as possible to preserve nutrients).
The regular form of this plant has white stalks with puckered green leaves, but my favorite variety has red stalks that contrast nicely with the leaves. Of course, I may feel this way because red is my utmost favorite color!
Marlene’s Favorite Homemade Salad Dressing
Place into a covered bottle:
½ cup Heinz Gourmet red wine vinegar
(or your own favorite brand)
1 cup salad oil (vegetable oil of your choice)
5 Tbsp granulated white sugar
1 tsp ground mustard
½ tsp celery seed
1 tsp salt
4 green onions, minced
¼ tsp garlic powder
½ tsp Worcestershire sauce
½ tsp Lawry’s seasoned salt blend
Shake well until thoroughly mixed.
NOTE: This recipe makes 1/3 of a quart and can be tripled to make a full quart, if desired. Store the salad dressing, tightly covered, in the refrigerator, where it will keep well for about a month. Shake well before each use.