With its milder temperatures, September is a great time to get back into the garden. It also is the perfect time to create a salad garden and enjoy homegrown fresh produce before the first heavy frost. There are a variety of plants to include such as lettuce, kale, chard and arugula, all of which can be started from seed or bought as small plants at most garden centers and which grow quickly so the bounty can be harvested in a matter of weeks.
The Style of the Garden
Start with the garden’s aesthetics, as there are many options. Salad gardens can be planted in a traditional garden format in the ground or in a variety of containers, and they can be as small or large and as simple or complicated as the gardener wants.
Containers can be made from bales of hay, half whiskey barrels or heavy gauge plastic bags that come with their own irrigation systems. Raised bed kits are also just the right size for a salad garden and require very little bending and lifting. Another benefit of using a taller container or raised beds is that rabbits might not be able to reach the tender leaves.
Use creativity and imagination to make the salad garden unique. If it is a traditional in-ground garden, it can be dressed up by anchoring the corners with boxwoods or containers of flowering annuals. If the garden is in a container, it can be more decorative by adding a trellis form for height and interest.
Seeds can be started inside and then transplanted into the ground or container, or they can be sown directly into the ground or container. The garden will be ready for harvest sooner if started with small plants.
An important item to remember when deciding where to plant a garden or where to place a container is its proximity to the house and a water source. The garden also should be located where it can receive at least six hours of sun a day, with morning sun being the most beneficial. To enjoy eating al fresco, consider positioning the garden or container near an outdoor dining area. Imagine plucking the leaves and dressing the salad right at the table for authentic farm to table dining.
Care of the September Salad Garden
Caring for a fall salad garden is easy and rewarding. Make sure plants receive six hours of sun a day; check the irrigation system regularly to make sure the plants are watered evenly, or hand water using a gentle shower-like nozzle on the end of the hose. Check for and remove any insects or diseased plants.
Harvest regularly to enjoy the bounty for weeks to come. Leafy vegetables are “cut and come again,” meaning the more they are harvested, the more they will produce. Take notes of successes and failures in order to make changes or improvements for next year’s September salad garden.
Lettuce: The Foundation of the SaladA variety of lettuces thrive during the fall in Columbia. The two most common types are loose-leaf and Romaine varieties. Galactic, a member of the loose-leaf family, has glossy burgundy leaves with a bold flavor. Simpson Elite, also a member of the loose-leaf family, produces attractive neon green leaves with curly edges. Romaine or butterhead varieties include Rougette de Montpelier, which has crisp, red-tinged leaves and a mild buttery flavor, and Parris Island, which is a romaine type that has crunchy green and white leaves that grow in a tidy, upright form. These varieties are also cut and come again. It is best to cut or pinch off the outer to leaves by hand or with a small pair of scissors to promote new growth.
Kale: Low Calorie and Full of Vitamins and Calcium
Culinary Kale is a delicious, healthy and hardy member of the cabbage family that does well in Columbia’s fall climate. According to an article in the New York Times Style section, kale salad is the “fashionable plat du jour.” It is much easier to grow than other members of the cabbage or broccoli family, and it can withstand cool temperatures and will produce well into early winter. A few light frosts actually improve its flavor. Homegrown kale is considerably more tender than store bought kale. The small crisp leaves are a nice addition to a salad, and the larger leaves can be shredded and added to a stir fry.
There are many varieties and plants of different colors from which to choose. Lacinato Kale or Dino Kale has tall narrow leaves and a wrinkled texture. It will survive through winter. Premier Kale is a new variety that matures very quickly and is also very cold hardy. It has tender, light green leaves. Redbor or Russian kale has curly, dark red leaves and will add color to the garden and salad.
Chard is a close cousin to spinach and has been grown in gardens since the time of Aristotle. Many varieties of ornamental chard are not for consumption, so make sure plantings are of edible varieties. Chard tolerates light frost and is easy to care for. The white-stemmed varieties are the easiest to grow and tend to be more productive. Fordhook Giant is a white-stemmed variety and is very prolific and cold-tolerant. Other varieties include Lucullus and Silverado which are red-ribbed but tend to be a little tougher; they are better when the young tender leaves are cut before they get to be taller than eight inches.
Arugula: Vegetable or Herb?
Arugula is a vegetable and is a member of the mustard family along with broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cabbage. It is also known as salad rocket or roquette and has vibrant green, lobed leaves that are attached to a pale green stem. The leaves are mature when they are three to four inches in length. Arugula has a peppery, nutty flavor and can be used both raw and cooked in salads and in sandwiches. It also benefits from regular cutting and will continue to produce tender leaves well after the first frost.
Chores for the September Gardener
- Continue deadheading blooming annuals and enjoy arrangements inside.
- Severely pinch back any tired looking annuals and add a liquid fertilizer to promote one last flush of blooms.
- Divide perennials and transplant to new areas or share with fellow gardeners.
- Plan and plant the September Salad Garden.
- Order or buy spring bulbs.
- Prune evergreen plants before the end of the month so that they harden off before winter.
- Make notes of successes and failures in the garden for changes next year.
Mary T. Dial, a Master Gardener and owner of the Itinerant Gardener, has been gardening in the Midlands since 1994.
Recipe for a September Salad Container Garden
Half of one whiskey barrel, 20 to 24 inches in diameter
One 52-dry-quart sized bag of high quality complete potting soil
Six kale in the center of the container
Eight chard circling the kale
12 lettuce circling the chard
Six arugula circling the lettuce
Make sure the barrel has good drainage; usually six to eight quarter-sized holes will be sufficient. Add a two- to four-inch layer of pebbles to the bottom of the barrel to keep the drainage holes from clogging. It may also be a good idea to raise the barrel on pot feet or small blocks of wood.
The September Salad Garden is an easy and rewarding activity and is a great way to introduce children to gardening. They can be involved in the planning, planting, care, harvesting and eating of the vegetables. Start planning a September Salad Garden now and enjoy homegrown salad in as little as three to six weeks.