Greens to go
If you love fresh greens, there is no reason not to grow them yourself, even if you have only a tiny terrace or handkerchief lawn. When Jon Traunfeld, a regional specialist for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension, showed me his homem...
If you love fresh greens, there is no reason not to grow them yourself, even if you have only a tiny terrace or handkerchief lawn.
When Jon Traunfeld, a regional specialist for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension, showed me his homemade salad table, I wanted one, and I wanted to put it right outside my kitchen door. It has a whole different appeal -- less work! proximity! -- than my big vegetable garden.
Essentially, it is a garden on wheels that you can move around, into sun or shade, a big benefit when the sun gets too hot for spinach. It's waist-high, so people with creaky knees or bad backs can just stand there and pick a few leaves for dinner. And it's a cinch to water and weed (not like that jungle I call my kitchen garden.)
"It also means the groundhogs and the rabbits aren't going to bother you," Traunfeld said, standing by his leafy table, which sits on a terrace at the extension service's Home and Garden Information Center in Ellicott City, Md. "Though, we have two deer trapped inside our fence. If they find this, we're sunk."
The salad table is basically a 3-inch-deep, 11-square-foot planting box on legs. It has a hardware-cloth bottom, lined with window screening, so that water can drain but soil mix stays put. The table can be lifted by two people; better yet, if you put casters on the legs it can be rolled.
Traunfeld invented his table about a year and a half ago, after seeing something similar at an organic farm in Virginia. He has long understood the joys of fresh greens: when it's too cold outside, he grows them under fluorescent lights in his basement.
He has been taking his salad table on the road to schools and community groups to show how easy it is to grow nutritious food right outside the door.
Last year, he grew greens in full sunlight during spring and fall. In the heat of the summer he pulled the tables back into the shade. Try doing that with your vegetable garden.
"Shade isn't a bad thing for greens, especially in the summer," Traunfeld said. "They don't really need direct sunlight." In fact, in the heat of August you can grow lettuces and other salad greens in full shade. Just push that table back into the light come September.
Lettuces, arugula, bok choy, mustards and many other greens are all shallow-rooted vegetables that can thrive, believe it or not, in 3 inches of potting soil, especially if it's enriched with compost. Traunfeld plants seeds of Russian kale, mizuna (a tangy Japanese green) and colorful lettuces like speckled trout, whose chartreuse leaves are splotched with maroon, and merlot, a ruffled red. Heat-resistant varieties, like oakleaf, deer tongue and Jericho, a romaine developed in Israel, are especially suited to a shallow box.
He also is growing purslane and amaranth, as well as basil and parsley; anything, in other words, that grows fast and easily in shallow soil. The greens sprout quickly in such loose soil, and will no doubt need to be thinned, in which case those little leaves may just be rinsed and tossed into a salad. As leaves mature, Traunfeld cuts them low to the base, then lets them grow again for a second cutting -- the cut-and-come-again method -- in a few weeks.
"You can only do that twice though, and it's time to take them out," Traunfeld said. "All of these plants have a life cycle, so after 60 or 70 days, they're just going to get bitter."
He fertilizes every two weeks with a liquid fertilizer, or relies on a slow-release fertilizer like Osmocote in the planting mix.
Although his planting box is large, a small one could be placed just about anywhere, including a narrow apartment balcony.
When I commented on how beautifully simple all this was, and wondered why no one had thought of this before, Traunfeld just laughed.
"Every time I teach this workshop, somebody says, my grandmother used to take old drawers out of chests that were going to get junked, and she grew plants, either spring onions or salad greens, in a drawer," he said. "So it's nothing new. We're just re-packaging it."
Traunfeld is finding that these tables are not only inspiring people to grow fresh food; they also are generating an interest in basic carpentry skills.
Since soil is too heavy and dense for these salad tables, it's better to use a lightweight, fertile mix, in which seeds can easily germinate. Traunfeld suggested half compost, half soilless mix. But make sure both are of a good quality. You also could use pure compost, if you make it yourself, or have a reliable source. Soilless mix dries quickly in the sun; you may have to water as often as twice a day.
If you want more texture in your salad, space plants about 3 to 4 inches apart, he advised. This is a good method for mustard greens, collards and chard.
"Then the mid-ribs develop and you get a little more crunch in your salad," he said. And you can just pick individual leaves, rather than cutting little soft ones with scissors.
These crunchy, bigger leaves are also less likely to wilt when tossed with an acid dressing made with vinegar or lemon.
Hand me the olive oil, please. Or a hammer, so that I can start on one of these tables.