Growing a container garden for Mason jar salads

in Columns/Cooking Cliff Notes/Health by

The arrival of spring brings with it the perfect weather for planting. Regardless of where you live – in a house or an apartment – your options aren’t limited to just flowers. Even the most space challenged can grow a salad garden. All you need is a large container, or several smaller containers, potting soil for the containers and the plants.

Plants can be started from seed, but that process requires daily attention and danger of mold. I’m a plant-it-now, instant gratification person, so I buy ready-to-plant at any local nursery or retail store. The advantage of buying from a local nursery is the employees are generally knowledgeable about what plants thrive best in the local climate.

Start with the soil. You want a potting soil formulated specifically for containers. Look for a brand that has moisture control properties so that water will not accumulate towards the bottom of the soil. That could lead to rot. Gravel at the bottom of the pot improves drainage, but good container potting soil has aeration that leads to better plants.

As a beginning gardener, and admittedly one with a black thumb, I have had success growing lettuce, cherry tomatoes and lemon cucumbers in the same container.

One advantage of a container salad garden is the potential to grow and produce throughout summer. Initially, I thought lettuce was a one-time harvest, but I later learned that you pull the leaves off the plant as you need them leaving the head to continue growing. This also keeps the lettuce from quickly going to seed.

Toward the end of summer when the lettuce is done for the season, tomato and cucumber plants will still produce if fertilized on a regular basis. According to Paul Orson, owner of The Plant Warehouse in Roseburg, Oregon, plants should be fertilized approximately every two weeks if a slow release fertilizer is used. However, if a balanced water soluble fertilizer is used, plants should be fertilized at least once a week.

Orson also recommends using plants that are going to mature at approximately the same time. He suggests starting with small-fruited plants that ripen quicker (like a cherry tomato and lemon cucumber) and romaine lettuce because it is slower to mature. All three plants can be planted in one container. The tomato and lettuce will grow up, while the cucumber will drape down over the edge of the container.

Lettuce can be planted now, but Orson recommends waiting another two weeks for the weather to warm up before planting tomatoes and cucumbers.

Other advantages of growing a salad garden are monetary savings and knowing where your food comes from. Organic and natural foods can be cost prohibitive, and growing your own food, even for a short period of time, can help save money. Unwanted pesticides and genetically modified foods are also avoided.

A container salad garden doesn’t require the volume of water, large space or time commitment that a conventional garden does. It does, however, require direct sun and sufficient drain holes so the water doesn’t pool in the bottom resulting in overwatered plants. Unfortunately, my container last year didn’t have drain holes resulting in drowned tomato plants and their untimely death.   Lesson learned.

If your gardening skills are advanced, or you feel ambitious but lack garden space, a plot in a community garden might fit your lifestyle. Roseburg has two community gardens available: the Westside Community Garden and the Eastwood Community Garden. Both community gardens have Facebook pages that contain contact information.

  Mason jar salad

Mason jar salads are a great way to enjoy your garden bounty.

Mason jars are not just for canning. They make great every day portable food and beverage containers. They are BPA free, microwaveable, dishwasher safe and inexpensive. Foods don’t stain or discolor them, and replacement lids are not only readily available but are uniform in size.

The key to a good Mason jar salad is layering. Start with salad dressing at the bottom. The next layer is hard vegetables like carrots, celery, bell peppers, cucumbers, broccoli and cauliflower. Soft vegetables like tomatoes, corn, onions and avocado are added on top of the hard vegetable layer.   Proteins like meat, cheese, beans or hard-boiled eggs are added next, and a layer of greens such as lettuce, spinach or arugula top off the jar.

Depending on your gardening skill level, space or ambition, most, if not all, of your salad greens and vegetables can be grown at home. And, if you’re really ambitious, you could make your own cheese using a wine refrigerator and raise a couple of backyard chickens for their eggs, but that’s another column!