As soon as you can smell spring in the air, it’s time to get moving on one of the most rewarding projects of the year – planting a spring salad garden. Arugula, lettuce, spinach and other salad greens make fast progress in the lengthening days of spring, and growing them under protective row covers prevents setbacks from nasty weather.
You won’t need a lot of space. The sample layout here utilizes one roomy raised bed, but if you are limited to tiny beds or containers, try Ben’s vertical salad gardens, which are planted in low towers. Also keep in mind that a spring salad garden comes and goes quickly, with the space freed up for planting something new in midsummer.
Ready to begin? Here are my top tips for a spring salad garden, and a sample planting plan that brings them together.
Choose lettuces with contrasting colors
In the garden or on the plate, it’s great to have different lettuce varieties with varying colors and textures. Use lettuce varieties with dark red or chartreuse leaves for eye-catching contrast.
Plant for a long harvest season
Fast-growing arugula and radishes are ready to pick after only a month, but slow-maturing romaine or crisphead lettuces take twice as long. Including a variety of greens extends the season and changes the character of your homegrown salads from week to week.
Use onion sets for structure
Companion plant salad leaves with onions, and plan to pull them early, as scallions, before they are shaded out by neighboring leafy greens. Upright scallions make excellent companion crops for crisphead lettuce, which needs time to reach full size.
Include herbs and edible flowers
Annual herbs like cilantro and dill are naturals for a spring salad garden, and you can use them as greens or for flavoring dressings. Grow perennial herbs such as chives in containers so you can move them elsewhere when the salad garden is renovated in midsummer. The same goes for Johnny jump-ups (also called mini-pansies or violas) and other long-blooming edible flowers.
Be picky about fertilizers
Because salad greens are cleaned in cool water and eaten raw, they must not be exposed to the kinds of microbes that lurk in undecomposed organic matter, particularly manure. Use a thoroughly processed organic fertilizer, or better yet, go plant-based by using alfalfa pellets or organic chicken feed as fertilizers in your salad garden.
Use a tunnel for weather and pest protection
Spring weather is notoriously changeable, and those changes often come with wind, hail, or heavy rains. You can protect your spring salad garden from violent weather and animal pests like rabbits and deer by using row covers, held aloft with hoops and secured along the edges with boards or bricks. When you stay busy with other things and don’t lift the cover for a couple of weeks, you will be astounded by the progress your plants make under their cocoon covers.
Salad greens and radishes are surprisingly thirsty crops that grow best when soil is kept constantly moist. Keep a hose or watering can handy so you can water your salad garden should the surface soil appear dry.
Weeding early and often is a joy in spring, when the sun is shining and birds are singing, and a small salad garden cleans up quickly if you give it a good going over once a week. Because spring is slug season and slugs love mulch, it’s usually best to keep a salad garden in open cultivation, and save your mulch for heat-stressed summer crops.