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How to grow your own salad greens and why you should


How to grow your own salad greens and why you should

Credit: Matt Montgomery

The salad you ate for lunch today may have used more fossil fuel than you did driving to work all week.

Your lettuce and garlic probably flew in from China; your asparagus may be from Brazil; the mixed leaves may have been vacuum packed in New Zealand or at least the other side of Australia. Your salad’s energy miles also included the fuel needed to grow it as well as make and transport its fertilisers, fungicides, herbicides and pesticides.

The solution? Grow your own! Salad vegies grow superbly on a balcony. The one thing you really need is sunlight, preferably six hours a day, although you’ll get a crop with three. Sunlight reflecting off a concrete or brick wall will give you even faster results, though you’ll need to give your plants more food and water to help the extra growth.

Step 1 Buy 6 large pots, or 6 massive hanging baskets. (Small ones heat up and dry out too quickly.)

Step 2 Fill with good potting mix containing water-retaining crystals and slow-release plant food.

Step 3 Plant:

  • 1 pot or basket of cut-and-come-again lettuces like ‘Red Cos’ or ‘Webb’s Wonderful’. These are ones that never heart — you just pick the leaves as you need them.
  • 1 pot or basket of rainbow chard — similar to silver beet but the stems are brightly colored. Plant them extra thickly so you get masses of tiny leaves that you can pick at finger size.
  • 1 basket or pot of Chinese celery, garlic chives, mizuna, mitsuba and spring onions (eat the tops), all to be snipped to give your salads piquancy.
  • 1 basket or pot with 2 cherry tomato plants.
  • 1 basket or pot of parsley for tabouli or parsley and walnut salad, or simply for adding to the mix.

If you have somewhere for them to climb, add four apple cucumber plants. And if you still have room and hanker for a touch of luxury, add another pot of purple or lemon basil, or snow peas (plant the seeds around the edge of the basket and they’ll train down, too), and even more tomatoes such as like ‘Black Krim’ or ‘Roma’ or tiny yellow pear tomatoes, which will need staking as they are really semi-climbers.

Salad vegies grow superbly on a balcony. The one thing you really need is sunlight, preferably six hours a day, although you’ll get a crop with three.

Still feel like planting? How about a bush of perennial chillies and a bush of mild perennial bell peppers, or some feather bronze fennel — chop the young ones into salads or sandwiches, but only if you like aniseed. If you are adventurous, try lovage plants — they’re like a small, wild perennial celery — or Italian red-ribbed chicory to use instead of lettuce, or a few young leaves added to a mixed salad.

The advantage of a balcony garden is that it rarely needs weeding, but do make sure you use good potting mix and not soil that may contain weed seeds. Birds may leave a few seeds in their droppings, but they will be very few indeed.

Your garden may also be up out of frost reach, plus that horrible heat reflected from bitumen roads and other buildings will actually help your garden grow.

If you don’t like watering, choose self-watering pots or even a wicking garden, where water percolates up from a reservoir below. Even easier, snake polypipe with drippers around your pots or baskets and turn them on for half an hour every evening or at breakfast time.

The slow-release plant food will need renewing every six months or so — the more heat and longer your growing season, the more tucker your plants will need. But, apart from that? Your work will be picking, eating and gloating over your harvest.

Even better, as you look outside you’ll see not just greenery but productivity. We humans still feel happier with food growing around us. Every time you look out at your salad-laden garden you’ll feel deep, subconscious satisfaction. There’s food out there and it’s all yours.

And at the end of summer? Cos lettuces, parsley and spring onions survive winter but may not bear as much, though in a warm spot the crop may surprise you. But as the basil and tomatoes wither, plant broccoli or broccolini — a lovely cut-and-come-again crop.

If you don’t like watering, choose self-watering pots or even a wicking garden, where water percolates up from a reservoir below.

Alternatively, start thinking fruit instead: plant your pot or basket with rhubarb, a dwarf lemon tree or, even better, a native lime, which will give you a summer of gorgeous pea-pod-size fruit filled with “vegan caviar”, wonderfully lemon-flavoured little capsules that burst with juice as you eat them — perfect for scattering on salads with a touch of olive oil.

In fact, even olive trees grow excellently in balcony pots. While olives grow large, they can be pruned to shape and can be made into a hedge to give you privacy as well as fruit — enough to cure your own olives, if not the bounty needed to bother pressing for olive oil.

The only words of caution — and they are important ones — is to check the structural integrity of your balcony. Pots weigh far more when wet. Every litre of water adds one more kilogram and, as your veg and trees grow, they’ll add weight, too.

Don’t just check how much weight your patio can take; also check how much any beams can carry, too, and make sure all pots are on large waterproof saucers so you don’t cause damp and rot. There are possibly mythical stories of Mediterranean pigs being fattened on apartment balconies and falling, balcony and all, as they grew too big. This is not something you want to happen to your tomatoes.



 

Jackie French

Jackie French is a gardener, ecologist, honorary wombat, 2014-2015 Australian Children's laureate, 2015 Senior Australian of the year and passionate believer in the need for all humans to feel part of the earth around them, by understanding the plants that sustain us.