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Simple steps to a water wise salad garden

  • Dot Zanotti Ingels
  • Picking your own homegrown salad each day is the best way to get the freshest variety of high-quality produce custom fit to your favorites. Our two most precious natural resources are our soil and our water. This year of drought has many people asking whether they can or should put in a vegetable garden. The answer is yes. With some planning and attention, you can eat your way through the year with fresh food you grew yourself using minimal amounts of water.

    A couple of things to consider are:

    • What to plant for your salad and how much. You will want to grow plenty but not more than you will need so your water and space are not wasted. Of course, that number varies with the size of your family.

    • Plant only what you like and will eat. If no one in your house likes peppers in their salad, skip planting them. That said, it is fun to experiment with a few new surprises each season.

    • Where and how to plant to optimize yield.

    We have all come to expect a lot more of our salads than the simple crunch of head lettuce. We like to see more varieties of nutrition-packed greens and add-ins that contain a variety of colors, shapes, sizes and flavors. Because we are growing our own, the choices are virtually limitless. Remember to plant some edible flowers such as nasturtiums or pansies to add to your salad. These will also attract pollinators and other beneficials to your edible garden.

    Healthy gardens start with rich, fertile, well-draining healthy soil. Any edible garden soil needs to be amended with high-quality compost at least annually to ensure the quality of the soil and help increase your soil’s water-holding capacity. When the hot summer sun beats down on bare soil, it causes moisture loss from evaporation. Adding a layer of mulch several inches thick around, but not touching the plants, shields the soil from the sun and reduces evaporation. Organic mulches like wood chips and grass clippings from a pesticide-free source decompose slowly and enrich the soil while protecting it. Keeping the garden weed-free also reduces water loss.

    Generally speaking, many of the salad favorites are heat loving. Sweet peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers like at least six to eight hours of direct sunlight. Root and leafy crops can tolerate some shade.

    Salad greens are really cool-weather crops, but can be grown mid-summer with some planning. When the daytime temperature is above 75 degrees, the quality of the greens diminishes and the plants tend to bolt or go quickly to seed. With a bit of creativity you can create a microclimate in your garden to allow for year-round greens. I plant my greens around the tomatoes or in my flower garden where they are shaded by their companion plants. You can also provide partial shading with shade netting. This knitted fabric can reduce the sunlight coming in by about 50 percent, keeps the soil cool and moist, and lowers air temperature. The fabric is too heavy to rest directly on the foliage; it can be supported by purchased hoops or you can build a frame that suits.

    For optimal growth your soil should be kept evenly moist as the plants mature. By using drip irrigation and smart controllers set for three days a week by 9 a.m. as mandated in Marin, your salad garden should be good to grow. You can water by hand but it is less efficient.

    You can start your plants from nursery seedlings or you can plant seeds. For a family of four who wants a variety of peppers and tomatoes, it is easier to just choose your varieties in the nursery. For salad greens you can do the same but at a definite loss of choices. A much larger selection of carrots, green onions, lettuces, radishes, spinaches, arugulas and radicchios can be yours if you start your own seeds. It is not hard to do. Follow the directions on the package. Nurseries have many more choices than they used to and a field trip to the Seed Bank in Petaluma will give you even more.