No matter how much we love the taste of vegetables freshly picked from the garden, the idea of growing a full-fledged garden can be daunting. They take up so much space, so much time, so much water. With all of our commitments to work, family, and just life, a garden can quickly fall from something we’d love to try to something we’ll save for next season “when we have time.” Enter the salad garden to save the day.
Growing salad greens, at least most of them, takes less time, effort, and space than you might think. A lot less. Plus, it’s important to consider the time you’ll save by simply grabbing your salad from your own yard or patio rather than making a run to the grocery store. And, you can enjoy the freshest produce any time day or night.
What is a Salad Garden?
I was introduced to the concept of a salad garden by my grandmother who proudly explained that the salad garden had patriotic roots.
During both the first and second World Wars, citizens of the U.S., U.K., Canada, and more were encouraged to take some of the pressure off the agricultural tract and public food supply with what George Washington Calver coined a “Victory Garden.” Not only did this help the war efforts, but it helped boost civil morale as folks felt empowered by their contribution and were rewarded with the produce they were able to grow at home. It also saved transportation and greatly increased the food supply, which was important as farms throughout Europe had been devasted, and many of the crops grown in the U.S. were going toward the war efforts.
The salad or Victory Garden, grown at homes and in community plots, became a part of daily life with over 5 million gardens being grown in the U.S. (exceeding $1.2 billion) by the end of the first war. President Woodrow Wilson was famously quoted as saying “Food will win the war.” By May 1943 during the second World War, there were 18 million Victory Gardens in the U.S., including one by Eleanor Roosevelt on the White House lawn. These gardens could be found at private homes, vacant lots, parks, and even window boxes. Lawns and flower beds were replaced with lettuce gardens.
In the U.S., the government established the U.S. National War Garden commission, distributing posters and leaflets on the basics for what and how to garden. Typical Victory Gardens would grow tomatoes, basil, peppers, carrots, lettuce, kale, onions, radishes, peas, beans, corn, cucumbers, eggplants, and more.
Don’t worry, your salad garden can be much smaller and easier to care for, but you may find yourself feeling just as empowered by your contribution to your family’s food.
What to Grown in Your Salad Garden
The basics for your salad garden will be greens. They grow quickly and are ready to pick within just 4 to 6 weeks after they’re seeded. Plus, they can be grown in small garden beds (often recommended just outside the kitchen door), in containers, or window boxes. There are numerous varieties available suitable for nearly every climate, including cool weather spring/fall plants like spinach, lettuce, and arugula. These can bolt (or flower/produce seeds) quickly when the weather gets hot, leaving you with bitter, tough greens, so switching to hot weather loving plants during the heat of the summer is a good idea. Hot weather recommendations include Swiss chard, New Zealand spinach, and purslane, along with hot weather loving lettuce. Loose leaf greens are often considered the easiest to grow, and they tend to take longer to bolt.
Your lettuce can be sowed directly outdoors or started inside in loose soil and transplanted outside. They do well in full sun to part shade. You don’t need to wait for a head to form either. Just grab some leaves from the outside of the plant anytime you want a salad. (I pick lettuce leaves throughout the week and place them directly into a colander, so I can quickly rinse them in the sink as soon as I get inside.)
One key to keeping your salad garden growing all spring, summer, and fall is to plant more lettuce seeds every 10 to 14 days until it gets hot.
Kale is another great green to add to your salad garden. It does well in the cooler spring months and thrives in both full sun and part shade.
What is a salad without tomatoes? Tomatoes need to be started early indoors, so we tend to purchase plants for our garden and grow grape and cherry tomatoes in full sun in containers by the door as they ripen quicker and are easy to grab on the way inside. (In Colorado, we can have a shorter growing season, so we like to play it safe.) Tomatoes do need to be watered deeply and regularly, and stakes can help prevent them from drooping into the soil where disease and pests can steal your hard-won fruits.
Last year was the first year we added cucumbers to the mix, and they are now a staple in our salad garden as they were surprisingly easy to grow and care for. We also buy plants to transplant into our garden with plenty of compost mixed into the soil. Cukes also like lots of water (otherwise they can become bitter). And if you pick them regularly, they continue to produce throughout the season.
There are numerous other plants you can add, but if you’re just starting your salad garden, feel free to keep it small and manageable with just a few plants. That’s better than getting overwhelmed and feeling like your garden is a time-sucking burden rather than the boon to making salads faster, easier, and yummier than ever before.
Beginner’s Guide to Grow a Salad Garden: 3 Tips
#1 Compost: Most plants do best in fertile soil that holds onto moisture. So, before you plant, add in some compost or well-seasoned manure and a quality organic fertilizer if necessary to your dirt. This will also make the soil easier to work, and there’s just something seriously grounding about working your hands in the dirt after a stressful day or week.
#2 Water: Slow and steady moisture is the way to go as most salad plants are both fast growing and shallow rooted, so they need to be watered regularly. A drip hose works well and adding a layer of mulch or shredded leaves can also help the soil hold onto the water longer.
#3 Keep planting: Known as “succession planting,” it just means that you follow one crop with another, so you can enjoy a non-stop or at least extended harvest. For greens, the recommendation is to add new seed every 2 to 3 weeks to replace those plants that have been used up.
5 Health Benefits of Salad Garden
Okay, you already know that fresh grown organic vegetables are good for you! That should go without saying. But that’s not the only reason to grow your own garden. New research has shown that digging in the dirt is good for your mind, body, and soul.
#1 Reduce Unwanted Stress & Boost Mood
Getting outside and digging into your garden at the end of a long, hard day has been shown to reduce mental fatigue and help revive you. One study from the Netherlands found that gardening can help fight stress better than other hobbies, such as reading. Other research has discovered it helps adults, especially older adults, enjoy increased feelings of well-being and a sense of accomplishment.
#2 Enjoy a Daily Dose of Vitamin D
Getting outside, with some skin exposed, allows your body to build up healthy vitamin D levels. Remember vitamin D benefits your bones and immune system, among others, and is vital to overall health.
#3 Increase Aerobic Fitness
Squatting down to plant level, pulling weeds, bending, and twisting to reach plants and pull weeds works your body, and you likely won’t even notice your body is “working.” Even moderate physical activity (which describes gardening) for just 2.5 hours each week can reduce your risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and even premature death.
#4: Combat Loneliness
Gardening does not need to be a solo endeavor. Get your family involved, and enjoy spending the time outdoors together, or join a community garden, so you can get to know new people in your neighborhood and connect with both people and your environment.
#5 Improve Finances
By growing your own abundant vegetable garden, not only can you save money at the grocery store, you may also increase your property values.
Beginner’s Guide to Salad Garden: A Recap
Growing a salad garden comes with so many healthful benefits, saves you money, and can be really fun. And if you start simple, you can avoid overwhelm and just enjoy all the lovely benefits it has to offer. So, what are you waiting for? Get outside and start digging!