These are our salad days. Plant a living salad bowl chock-full of ruffled lettuce, tender arugula and other delicious greens, and you'll be able to pick a healthy harvest for the dinner table for months.
Lettuce is easy to grow in pots, and a bowl full of lettuce plants is pretty enough for the front porch. Salad greens of all kinds flourish in unpredictable spring and early summer temperatures without special care. Half a dozen plants in a pot -- or more, because they don't mind being crowded -- will produce salad greens all through the spring. If you plant edible flowers, such as violas, pansies or pinks, among the lettuce plants, you'll enjoy a spot of color both in the container and in the salads you put on the table.
It's fun to grow garden crops from seed, but to get your salad pots off to a fast start, plant transplants, which are available in six-packs at garden shops. Look for healthy, bright green plants that stand up strong and tall in their little cells of soil. Some lettuces (such as red leaf and red romaine) are either all red or tipped with red. They add color and contrast to the planting -- plant them side by side with green lettuces, and they'll look appetizing just growing together. The fancy, frilly leaves of arugula, mizuna, kale or mustard greens will contribute interesting textures to your planting and add spice to your salads.
Any container with drainage holes will make a fine vessel for your living salad, but a large bowl, wider than tall, is an especially good choice. Lettuce plants will only be growing for a couple of months (until they turn bitter in hot summer temperatures), so you don't need a deep planter. A bowl about 12 inches across, sometimes called a "color bowl" at garden shops, is a good size to start with. It will hold about eight small plants. A larger bowl, 18 inches across, will look more impressive; it will hold about 15 plants.
Buy a fresh bag of potting soil and fill the container to the rim. Potting soil is lightweight and drains well. Most potting soils today include a slow-release fertilizer, so there's no need to add more.
Take the plants out of their cell packs and arrange them on top of the potting soil in the bowl. Normally, you would plant the tallest plants in the center or at the back of a flowerpot, but lettuce plants all grow to about the same height, so arrange the planting however you like to take advantage of their leaf shapes, colors and textures. A pretty design might have green lettuce plants around the outside of the container, with a flourish of red-leaf lettuces in the center and a couple of pansies or violas for color. If you're growing romaine, set these compact plants in the center of the dish and arrange ruffled-leaf lettuces around the sides, like a frilly petticoat. You can experiment with the design, trying different kinds of lettuces or adding more flowers until you're happy with the way it looks.
Now loosen the roots of each plant with your fingers and tuck them into the potting soil, with the crown of the plant at soil level. Firm the soil in around each plant as you go. Potting soil tends to settle a bit even as you're planting, so you may need to add more as you work. Just make sure the plants are not too deep in the pot.
Now water well to moisten the potting soil and to settle the plants in. Don't worry if the splashing water pushes the plants over slightly; they'll stand up again within a few hours. If some of the leaves are a little bit floppy, snip them off with scissors for your first salad.
After the pot has drained thoroughly, move it to the porch, a patio, or a bright spot near the kitchen door. Sunshine is the only requirement. If you plant several pots, let them march up the front stairs. Salad pots also look great on a patio table or on a garden wall. They're particularly nice on a pedestal; try raising them up by putting the pots on upside-down flowerpots, chimney flue tiles or a stack of inexpensive concrete pavers.
Within a few days, you'll be able to pick your first real harvest. Trim the leaves from the outsides of the plants with sharp shears, and the plants will continue to produce new leaves from the center. Trimming actually encourages growth, so picking a few leaves every day or so will make your salad garden even more productive. Water the pot when the soil feels dry (poke a finger a couple of inches into the potting soil). From just one pot, you can count on harvesting fresh-picked salad greens for at least two months. It's a nice trick, a treat for your table and a feast for your eyes.
-- Lettuce and other spring greens (arugula, mizuna, kale, mustard) are available in six-packs at garden shops in spring. Bonnie Plants is a good source, with half a dozen or more different lettuces and greens. They're widely available. For a retailer in your area, visit bonnieplants.com.