This week in Australia there have been sweeping recalls of a large variety of packaged salads and lettuces, from our two major supermarkets, due to Salmonella poisoning. 7 Eleven have recalled sandwiches and Light and Easy have also recalled some meals. It’s a scary world out there, people! It feels especially betraying because lettuce is supposed to be the least offensive vegetable of all, the thing we feel most virtuous eating – and here it is making us sick! Luckily most salad ingredients are surprisingly easy to grow yourself, even if you don’t have a vegetable garden. And lets face it, growing it yourself seems the safest way to go right now!
Possibly even more scary than Salmonella.
Seedlings are inexpensive, and available in your local hardware store, nursery or green grocer. Seeds are even cheaper and can also be bought at the supermarket. Salad greens can be popped into any area in the garden that is a bit sheltered from harsh sun. They will grow happily with most other plants, or even in pots on the balcony or sunny windowsill. The beauty of growing salad greens is that they are ready to eat in a a short time, so don’t need to become a permanent fixture in your garden. They also need a lot less care than longer wintering crops like cabbage, and lets face it, unless you are in a very cold area of Australia you’ll be able to grow them for most of the year. Keep them watered and watch for hungry caterpillars, but don’t worry about using pesticides. A glass of wine while undertaking a few minutes of caterpillar patrol before dinner is good for the soul.
There are endless varieties of lettuce, from frilly Oak-leaf to hardier Cos. It’s great to have a variety of lettuce in your salad bowl, and most nurseries make this easy by selling a tray of lettuce varieties ready to go. Another great thing about growing your own lettuce is that you can harvest it leaf by leaf, which saves harvesting the whole plant then having it wilt in the fridge; just pick a few leaves for the kids sandwich in the morning, then a few handfuls for salad at dinner time.
There are so many interesting varieties of tomato that you don’t find in the shops, which makes growing them very rewarding. They have a longer growing time and take up more room, but are still very happy in pots. They like a lot of sun and water, and some fertilizer will keep them growing strong. Climbing varieties will want a trellis, or some kind of support to grow on. My best advice for growing organic tomatoes is to stick with the small varieties, as they are harvested so quickly they don’t have time to turn into a caterpillar hotel, which can be a real problem in larger varieties unless you are happy to use chemical repellents. Don’t throw your plant away when the leaves fall off, that is when your tomatoes will grow!
These are super easy to grow, are not susceptible to insects, and are not at all fussy about sun, shade or when you forget to water them occasionally. Also, you can grow them for free! Next time you buys spring onions, save the white end with some roots attached, and plant them. That is it! They will grow to a full size spring onion in a few weeks, and when you want to harvest again; cut them close to the ground but leave the roots growing, and it will grow again!
Like most ‘fruiting’ plants, chilies like regular water and fertilizer. There are so many varieties to grow, and there seems to be a lot of recipes around for chilies these days. At the moment we are growing Jalapenos, and I can’t wait to fill them with cream cheese, wrap them in bacon and throw them on the BBQ. Not exactly salad, but they will be served WITH a salad, so there you go! Pro tip for growing chilies; they do not play nicely with tomatoes, (in the garden anyway) so plant them as far away as you can from your tomato vine.
This is possibly the easiest thing you will ever grow, but it’s not so happy on the windowsill. Whack it in the ground, remember to water it occasionally, and in 4 weeks you’ll be over run with delicious silverbeet. This is another plant that can be harvested leaf by leaf. There is also a rainbow chard variety, which tastes like regular silverbeet but has vibrant, different coloured stalks; talk about eating your rainbow! Both are delicious to us as well as bugs, so keep an eye on silverbeet during your wine soaked caterpillar patrol.
Beetroot takes a little bit longer than a few weeks, it might take 8-12 weeks to get a decent crop. But, growing your own means you can harvest them while tiny, and the leaves can also be harvested one at a time and cooked like spinach or added to a stir fry. They are resistant to insects BUT my last batch of beetroots was eaten out of the ground by a bastard possum! Next time I will use nets. There are lots of interesting beetroot varieties to try, my favourite are golden and chioggi, which is red and white striped, a bit like cat in the hat’s chapeau.
Radish grow in the same way as beetroot only a lot faster, in fact they are often recommended as a first crop for children to grow as they get a result so quickly. They are quite spicy (rather than sweet like beetroot) so are not so attractive to garden bastards such as possums. I’m not a fan of raw radish although recently I’ve learnt that they are delicious sliced thinly and pickled. Chopped up in a stir fry they lose their heat and develop a nutty sweetness, which is a big hit in the BC family. There are lots of different radish varieties to keep you interested.
Corn likes to be planted before the Summer sun gets too hot, but you can sometimes fit two corn plantings in a season. This is definitely not something to grow on your windowsill! Corn is a very satisfying plant to grow because it grows so high, it looks very substantial and is great for hiding ugly fences or even uglier neighbours. It can be harvested as you want it, although don’t leave it on the stalk too long. There are lots of different corn varieties to grow, including popcorn, which is not regular corn at all – it is a variety unto itself. There is a popular saying “Don’t pick the corn until the water is boiling in the pot”, and this is because the natural sugar in corn starts turning to starch the second you pick it – so the corn you grow and eat is likely to be the sweetest you’ve ever tasted. 12 seedlings will give you about 2 or 3 meals worth of corn on the corn for a family of 4.
Soft herbs like parsley, coriander, basil, lemon balm, and mint, have growing needs that are virtually the same – lots of water and a bit of sheltered sun. They will happily grow in pots on the windowsill. Hardier herbs like rosemary, thyme, bay, sage and marjoram need an outdoor position and lots of sun, even if they are kept in pots. Grow soft herbs with the expectation that they won’t last long, and you’ll be less disappointed when the coriander goes to seed the first time it goes without a water. You’ve been warned: use it quickly. Mint and parsley can grow for much longer, particular mint, which does best if planted under a leaky tap. Basil will grow into a huge bush in no time.
Unless you are growing bush beans, you’ll need a trellis of some kind – here we have used a stylish piece of discarded pool fencing for the beans to climb up. You are totally jealous, right? What ever you use as a trellis, beans will grow quickly and be ready to eat in no time. The more you pick them, the more they grow, so don’t hold back. They will be happy in pots, as long as you water them.
Bonus! Odd things.
One of my favourite things to do is search out weird and wonderful seedlings, plant them in the garden, and see how they grow and what they taste like. Give it a go, you might find something you really like! There is a wide range of things that you might never consider eating, that are perfectly delicious. Nasturtium grows easily from seed, in sand, without a lot of water – it’s extremely hardy, feel free to plant it in a crack in the footpath. It’s also extremely delicious, with a bright peppery taste that goes really well with cream cheese. The flowers are also edible and look very pretty as garnish on your salad, or on a corn cracker with some beetroot dip. You can even pickle the seeds.