Bowl me over with a New Year’s Salad Bowl Garden

Start a lettuce bowl to start your year out right

I know exactly how you are feeling: The presents are open, the elastic waist pants are on, but yet, gardeners are feeling uncomfortable.
Sure, the Winter Solstice has passed, so every day there is a barely perceivable increase in sunlight. But what do we do now in between the giant chasm of January through March, till we can push the gardening envelope and start working outside again?

I have the solution. It will scratch your gardening itch and is a healthy, delicious way to start your better eating resolution. Every year for the last 20, I have started a “salad bowl” on New Year’s Day in my sunniest window. By early February, I am snipping some fresh spinach, butter lettuces, and other greens to add to my sandwiches. And by early March, I am eating my own fresh salads.

Lettuces and other greens are quick to germinate, and require less light than the plants that have to flower to get produce (tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, etc.).

And with these salad greens, they are a “cut and come again” vegetable, meaning as soon as you get to a minimum set of leaves, you can harvest every few days by cutting a few leaves and leaving others. This stimulates the plants to continue to make new leaves. So, you have an ongoing cutting lettuce garden until May, when your outside greens can take over.

This is also a great project for your kids and grandkids. It not only teaches them the basics of seed starting, but even if they don’t eat lettuce, learning where food comes from is a powerful lesson. Gardening also teaches so many of those soft skills so needed today: following directions, trial, and error, learning everything isn’t instantaneous gratification and, most of all, no screens involved.

So what seeds are good for this little healthy fun project? Any greens work — from the vast rainbow of different lettuces, to kales, to chard, spinach and even the Asian greens like Bok choy and the miniscule toy choy.

The only ones that aren’t practical are the true head formers, like iceberg or cabbage. There are some great heirloom varieties. Black-seeded Simpson is a leaf lettuce variety that is a robust grower with a strong flavor. The secret to taming Black-seeded Simpson’s flavor is to harvest it (yes, even from your pot on the kitchen table) and refrigerate it for 2-3 hours before serving. The cooling down changes the starchy strong flavors to a milder, sweeter taste.

My favorite heirloom is a miniature bibb variety called Tom Thumb. The sweet buttery miniature heads are perfect for a personal-sized salad. Then there is the palate of colors of other lettuces. There are burgundy, almost black-leafed varieties like mascara or pomegranate. Then the frizzy-headed lettuces that look like a bad perm from the ‘60s.

But you may ask, just where do I find seeds this time of year? Easy. Most big box stores, hardware stores and even the grocery store were changing out the Christmas merchandise this past week, and seed displays are replacing the Santa and tinsel.

You can also purchase seeds that are pre-mixed and contain many different varieties, but for me, I like to do a taste testing of the different varieties, so I like to purchase the different types individually.

While you are at the store, if you don’t already have some soilless potting mix, grab a bag of that, too. Steer clear of anything labelled potting soil or seed-starting mix; I have covered numerous times why these are both the worst choices for seed starting success.

As far as a good container, lettuce doesn’t really need great depth to grow successfully, and a shallow bowl or pan works great. The only requirement is that you need to have drainage and make a hole in the bottom. Those numerous plastic Cool Whip containers are perfect, and this is a great way to upcycle. Just three or four holes will suffice, just so any excess water can drain away.

Once you have your “hole-y” container, next step is to pre-moisten the potting mix. Yes, pre-moisten, before the seeds are sown. I usually will open my potting mix bag and pour a couple cups into the bag the night before planning to start.

When we don’t pre-moisten, we run the risk of having to overwater after planting, and all of our seeds migrate away to the sides of container. Also, the deeper layers where those new roots will be growing may not get properly hydrated, and you will have dry spots. When those new baby roots hit into those dry spots, they can die.

Fill your container or containers within 1” of the top with potting mix. Then lightly water. Only then do I want you to get ready to plant your seeds. And this is the most important part for healthy quick lettuce and greens growing. You are not going to dig holes, nor make lines and rows in your little miniature garden to plant.

Planting too deep is one of the main reasons seed starting fails. The seeds respond to moisture by breaking their seedcoat, then the little stem and root emerge. When planted too deeply, seeds exhaust all their energy trying to send that little stem through the soil and don’t germinate.

Instead, just sprinkle the lettuce seeds lightly over the surface of the entire pot. Then just take your hand and gently run your hand back and forth over the soil. I tell kids to do the motion as if petting a dog or cat. And that is it! Then water and put in a sunny window. Mist daily until seedlings emerge. Then water thoroughly until water comes out drain holes.

Soon, you will be clipping your own fresh greens to add to your sandwich or salad. In February!


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