April 2008

Looking over the last couple of years, I always started my April article saying isn’t this a “particularly cool spring this year” or something about the cold days of March. Yes, we do live in climate with cold springs. So, that means we’ll have a bumper crop of greens again this year, probably lasting all the way until end of June.

As the days are getting longer and the rains keep the soils moist, the leafy greens in our gardens are really responding. Prized salad greens grow best in this weather, and are an easy crop for even a beginner.

Spring leafy greens will need a lighter soil with high fertility and good drainage. Add lots of compost and an extra source of nitrogen, either composted manure, worm castings or fish or blood meal. When buying fertilizer, the first of the three numbers on the fertilizer package will give you the nitrogen content. That number should be significantly larger than the other two numbers, maybe 3 to 5 times larger. I particularly like the leaf lettuces because you can be picking off their leaves for weeks or months even and the plants continue to produce. The oak leaf varieties and the deer leaf and the beautiful ruffle and colorful varieties they sell these days. I plant very thickly and then continue thinning these as we eat our way through spring. Romaine lettuce is a hardy producer and a regional favorite, but remember not to crowd this variety. It needs room to fill out. Though they can be delicious, I have difficulty with the soft buttercrunch varieties They grow slowly and sweetly and the slugs find their way into the heads and ruin the crop. So, romaine is the primary “heading” lettuce I recommend for new gardeners.

But there are so many more leaves to try in our salads. I fell for baby turnip greens a few years ago. This is a turnip variety that does not produce a large root. I have been saving these seeds for years now. They grow so quickly and the leaves are easy to snip off with a scissors. They grow very much like the arugula, which is also easy to save seed for. Just toss a handful of these two types of seeds into a well dug bed in March or early April and you’ll harvesting these salad greens all through May, maybe June if it stays cool. And of course, if you planted your beets in early spring, they will need to be thinned and you can add those little leaves into your salad mix. Remember that the beet seed is actually a small fruit which sprouts several plants from each “seed”. Thus, to avoid crowding the developing roots, you will need to thin your beets.

Salad growers all over the Northwest have their favorite “designer” salad mixes. Experiment with what your family likes best. Try tiny kale and mustard leaves which are very fast growing. Don’t forget the perennial plants that add zest to a salad. We grow a couple kinds of sorrel and love the lemony, tartness on sandwiches and in salads. Add snipetes of salad burnett, fennel fronds and watercress. And while you are snipping through the garden, add the tips of some chick weed which are a healthy, little treat. Perhaps add a couple tips from your pea vines which are also a treat in a salad.

As we get into June you’ll need a different strategy for growing your salad greens. Many of these early spring greens will bolt (start flowering and producing seeds). Leave a couple blooming plants, tie them to a stake and tag them so you can save the seeds for next spring. Compost the rest as they will loose their sweet flavors. For summer greens try planting New Zealand spinach, mizuna, purslane and black seeded Simpson lettuces. I’ve had good production from other lettuces like slowbolt and valmaine. Generally you’ll want to plant a short row of greens every month to have a regular diet of green salad. Besides keeping them well watered, try to give them a spot in your garden with afternoon shade.

Enjoy the spring time. Keep growing your food and your community.

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