I can't believe it's almost halfway through April already!!! Things at work have have been crazy hectic, and I haven't had time to think about feeding myself, let alone a blog post...
I have missed you! I don't know about you, but ever since I started writing this blog, I've had to seriously think about the food I put in my shopping basket: no more random spouting off about eating local and seasonal, I've had to mean what I write. There have been digressions -we do live in a northerly country with severe winters and bare fields after all- but all in all I have been 'good'. I steer away from tomatoes in December; I haven't even bought canned tomatoes for myself in over a year (I did buy some for food baskets -but only because I wasn't sure they would accept home-canned tomatoes...). Right now, those homegrown cans of tomatoes are literally saving my life as I haven't had time to saunter over to the supermarket (even less so to the market!)
All this to say, if I had the time to wash my windows, now would be the perfect time to grow a window box-full of spring salads. The picture above was taken the day before a curious (*!**"@&&) squirrel decided to check out the seedlings and unearthed the whole lot. As you can see, despite the chilly nights, lettuces, spinach and roquette seeds sprout easily at this time of the year. Just don't set your planters out on the balcony just yet! Wait until there is more food growing about, otherwise you're likely to have a nasty surprise one early morning.
Salad bars are really easy to grow yourself, even without an overly sunny window. All you need is a container of sort with holes on the bottom for drainage, some sterile potting medium (a soil-less mix is best for seed starting), and a dish to catch any excess water (wouldn't want to ruin a carpet or a hardwood floor for salad!) Oh, and seeds. It's still too early to buy sets (pre-grown plants, ready to put into the ground), and seeds are cheaper anyway. Most salad plants have short roots, so you don't even need a very deep pot, as long as you have at least 15cm (6") of depth.
Now is the time to be buying seeds. They are available almost everywhere, though you will have the biggest choice in a plant nursery or a hardware store. Spinach, radishes and arugula are really easy crops to grow, as are most lettuces. If you are a beginner container-gardener, go for loose-leaf lettuces: they do not form a tight head (like romaine or iceberg lettuces) and are quite forgiving plants. You can also get mixed greens packets, some of which are really interesting gustatorially.
To get started, wet the planting medium with warm water until it resembles a squeezed out sponge. If you overwater the mix, no worries: just squeeze it out like a sponge! Do not use compost unless you plan to sterilize it in the oven before using. Compost is a godsend to all plant life, except for little seeds. If you absolutely want to use compost for your salad bar, you can start the seeds in little containers (reuse egg cartons, or the clamshell boxes some veggies come in) filled with a sterile mix; once the seedlings have a set of true leaves you can plant them into compost.
Fill your pot with the wet mix, leaving about 3 cm (± 1") at the top. Don't press down too hard on the soil, as plants don't like putting down their roots in compact spots. Using your finger or an unsharpened pencil, make shallow dents (0.5 cm/ ½") in the soil, spacing them out at about 3cm intervals. In each dent, place a tiny pinch of seeds and cover with a pinch of soil. Leave your pot near a window, it needn't be the sunniest one, but it mustn't be completely devoid of light. If your heat hasn't been turned off yet, and you happen to have a heater near a window, that would be an ideal spot. Within a few days, you should start to notice some activity in your pot.
Your salad bar should be ready to harvest when the plantlets are about 8cm (3") high. Use scissors to shear them down by half, and enjoy a home grown salad. A week or two later, the salads will ready for a second haircut. You can get one or two more harvests after that, then you can leave the pot out on the balcony for squirrels to rummage through.
Have fun, and bon app'!