There are few things in life more satisfying than eating a salad plucked from your own garden. For black thumbs eager to dip a toe in hyper-locavore culture, lettuce is an ideal entry-level veggie, and one of the few edibles that you can plant long before the Victoria Day fireworks go off. Here, some tips on how to turn your backyard into a salad bar.
Prepare your plot
As soon as soil has thawed, you can start planting. "Prepping is key," says Kevin Colbert of Threadleaf, Inc., a local landscaping company. He suggests mixing your existing soil with peat as well as compost - either home-grown or store-bought, depending on how earthy (or stinky) you're willing to get. An electric soil reader will test the soil's PH levels (most lettuce does best between 6 and 7). It's also important to know your soil, says Steven Biggs, co-author of No Guff Vegetable Gardening. Sandy soil requires frequent watering, while anything with a higher clay content retains moisture more readily.
Beginners should stick to the leafier greens
If you're the type of veggie-lover who has trouble keeping the house plants alive, you'll want to avoid the crisp head lettuces like iceberg, that are generally more temperamental. Mr. Biggs says. Arugula is a delicious leafy option that will grow right up until Thanksgiving. Other amateur-friendly options include Boston Bibb and watercress.
Location, location, location
Most varieties like some sunlight, but not too much, so generally the best place is in partial sunlight, although direct sun is fine in the cooler months, while full shade works during the dog days of July and August. Crops take about six weeks to reach maturity so succession planting about every three weeks is a good idea if you want salad all summer long. Scatter seeds in a sunny spot in May, choose a shadier plot for plants that will be harvested at summer's peak and then go back to the original spot for an early fall crop.
Seed scattering isn't an exact science
Rather than spend time and effort dropping seeds in a perfect grid formation, Mr. Biggs advocates a more abstract approach. "I just toss them out there," he says, adding that it's a good idea to rake the soil, so some of the seeds get covered by a thin layer of soil. "Later, if I see that two plants are growing too close together, I will just pull one out and eat it," he says.
How to stunt the aging process
Once a lettuce plant has matured, it needs to be harvested right away. Left growing too long, leaves become nastily bitter and the plant starts to flower. So what to do when there are 15 perfectly ripe lettuce plants that need to be eaten as soon as possible? Option 1: Throw a block party and invite the whole neighbourhood to sample your homegrown goodness. Option 2: Temporarily stunt the aging process by uprooting, and then replanting a portion of your crop. "When a plant experiences that kind of stress," Mr. Biggs says, "it will freeze up and buy you a few extra days."
Keep your (veggie) friends close
Like all living things, plants have natural allies, so there's no need to keep your veggie patch homogeneous. Colbert says carrots, cucumbers, radishes and strawberries all do well growing alongside lettuce, as do herbs like chives and sage. Toss it all together, and you've got yourself a seriously delicious salad.
And don't do this: forget to check for wayward earwigs before tucking into your backyard Bibb.
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