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Tasty and beautiful ... your own salad greens.

The current explosion of interest in fresh, tasty, and artistic salads has prompted shoppers to spend as much as $16 a pound for gourmet greens at produce markets. But home gardeners have an advantage: growing the greens substantially reduces their cost, and harvesting them fresh creates the most flavorful and nutritious salads of all. As a bonus, these greens are very ornamental, making them a welcome addition to any garden.

Below we describe two eays to grow salad greens quickly and successfully--in containers and in the ground.

Grow a salad in a pot

One of the easiest ways to grow salad greens is in large containers. You can also place your greens only steps away from the salad bowl by setting the pots in a sunny corner on a patio or just outside the kitchen door.

For a quick salad pot, shop for greens at nurseries. In large metropolitan areas, a few nurseries may carry seedlings of gourmet greens. But in most cases, you'll find only unnamed lettuces, such as romaine and butter, and unnamed greens, such as spinach and chard. Be sure to buy seedlings with uncrowded rootballs.

If choices are limited, give your potted salad more color and flavor by adding herbs such as chives, cilantro, and parsley; bunches of onions; and edible flowers, like Johnny-jump-ups. Ornamental kale sold as a bedding plant also makes a colorful addition to salads when harvested young.

You'll have many more options if you start from seed. For mild flavors, choose from the dozens of lettuces with green, red, or deep purple leaves. Other mild greens include 'MacGregor's Favorite' beet, which is grown for its purple foliage; 'Baby Bok Choy'; 'Ruby Red' chard; curly endive; mache (corn salad); and crinked- or smooth-leafed spinach.

Tangier choices include arugula (roquette or rocket); 'Broadleaf' or 'Curely' cress; mizuna; burgundy-colored 'Red Giant' or 'Osaka Purple' mustard; and sorrel.

Starting a salad from seed. Most greens started from seed take three to four weeks to reach transplant size. Sow seeds in flats or seed-starting trays. Plant them about 1/4 inch deep in premoistened potting soil.

Keep the soil moist. In flats, thin plants to about 1 inch apart; greens are ready to transplant when they're 1 to 2 inches tall (transplant small ones carefully).

Plainting in large pots. large pots (at least 14 inches in diameter) take less maintenance and can hold more kinds of greens. Fill with potting soil to about 2 inches below the rim, mixing in soil polymers for water retention.

Arrange greens so the taller ones, such as chard and mustard, are in the center or rear of the pot. Fill in the gaps with lettuces, endive, and other greens. Poke herbs and flowers in between. You can crowd plants 3 to 4 inches apart, but harvest frequently so they don't outgrow the pot too quickly.

Keep the soil evenly moist (crowded pots need water more often); if the soil dries, mild-tasting greens turn bitter. Fertilizer every two weeks with fish emulsion or half-strength dilution of a high-nitrogen fertilizer.

Harvest outer leaves when tender and young. To keep pots going, pull out mature plants and put in new ones.

Grow greens in wide beds

If you're a true lettuce fancier, grow a succession of gourmet greens in garden beds using the methods of California salad farmer Tom Shepherd. Every week, he harvests 1,000 pounds of gourmet greens from his 6-acre organic farm along the coast in Montecito. His techniques, outlined below, can be adapted to any size home garden.

Choosing varieties. Start with a blend of red and green lettuces, mostly loose-leaf types, that resprout vigorously after cutting. Shepherd recommends, 'Lollo Biondo', 'Lollo Rosso', 'Red Oak Leaf', and 'Tango'. To these he adds Asian salad greens--mizuna, red mustard, and tatsoi--and balances the blend with arugula, 'Curly' cress, curly endive, leaf amaranth, and radicchio. (if you're a beginner gardener, start with only a few greens and lettuce.)

Planting the beds. Plant lettuce seed or seedings in separate 24-inch-wide beds. To sow seed directly, mix the varieties and broadcast over the surface. For seedlings, transplant when they're just an inch tall; space them about 2 inches apart.

You can sow seeds for the other greens directly in separate beds. Most greens should be spaced 2 inches apart; the exceptions are radicchio and curly endive, which should be thinned to 8 inches.

For a continuous harvest inland, sow seed or transplant every three weeks during the cool season. In mild coastal areas, plant year-round.

Growing the greens. For greens to grow quickly and retain their flavor, they need consistent moisture. Irrigate with a single line of flexible black soaker hoses or follow Shepherd's method of using two parallel lines of plastic drip tape. The tape directs water to the plants' root zones, reduces water loss from evaporation, and keeps soil from splashing onto the leaves. The tape is usually available to commercial growers in large quantities and lasts for only a few seasons. It's hard to find; some irrigation supply stores will special-order for you.

To manage flying pests, such as flea beetles, protect plants with water- and light-permeable floating row covers (available through garden supply catalogs). Seeds germinate under the fabric, and the plants lift if as they grow. Remove the covers when the plants are 1 to 2 inches tall; by that time, they're growing vigorously and will soon be harvested.

To eliminate insect habitats, remove debris promptly and keep the perimeter of your garden clear of vegetation that may harbor snails. When leaf-eating caterpillars threaten arugula, mizuna, or tatsoi spray with Bacillus thuringiensis.

Amend your soil with aged animal manure and compost before planting. You can foliar-feed with fish emulsion (for nitrogen) and liquid kelp (for minerals).

Cut-and-come-again harvest. The key to a plentiful salad supply is succession planting and the continual cutting of bite-size leaves. (Shepherd harvests all greens, except curly endive and radicchio, when they are 3 inches high.) If plants grow too large, they will turn bitter and go to seed. In mild climates, you can cut entire plants four or five times. Expect fewer harvests if you live inland.

Harvest radicchio when it's about the size of a large orange, or pick individual leaves. When curly endive is 4 to 6 inches high, fold the leaves up and enclose them in a loose rubberband to blanch; four to seven days later, cut the bands, harvest, and let the plants grow again.

You can mix the salad greens as you harvest them. To keep greens clean and free from bruises, don't handle the leaves much. Use culinary scissors to cut entire plants just above the soil level. harvest leaves directly into the basket of a salad spinner, rinse them outdoors (over a garden bed, to save water), spin, and serve.

Mail-order greens

For the best selection of greens, order seeds by mail.

The Cook's Garden, Box 535, Londonderry, Vt. 05148; (802) 824-3400. Catalog $1.

Nichols Garden Nursery, 1190 N. Pacific Highway, Albany, ore. 97321; (503) 928-9280. Catalog free.

Ornamental Edibles, 3622 Weedin Court, San Jose, Calif. 95132; (408) 946-7333. Catalog $2.

Shepherd's Garden Seeds, 6116 Highway, 9, Felton, Calif. 95018; (408) 335-5311. Catalog $1.
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Sep 1, 1991
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