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Organic Gardening

Get dirty, have fun and grow more food with great gardening tips from real-life gardeners.

First Lettuce Crop and a Sandwich, Too

last year's arugula 

I’m chomping at the bit to play in the dirt when the first warm, dry days of spring come. I check the soil for moisture, because I can’t dig in mud, and the weather report to see if it’s time to dig. When it’s finally time to dig and plant, I’m as happy as a five-year-old in a Bounce Castle!

This year, I thought the time was the week of March 19th. I started in bed #4 out of 5 raised beds in my backyard. I turned the precious organic soil I slaved over during the first year of gardening in Baltimore, and then shoved it through my homemade dirt sifter to get ready for planting greens.

Choosing the Right Lettuce Varieties

I don’t just plant lettuce. No, I plant up to ten kinds of greens in one or two of my beds. The more the merrier. I planted the second round of seeds in bed #3 on March 26th that featured: beets, two kinds of carrots, Chadwick’s Rodan lettuce, and SloBolt cilantro. Things are looking great for late April and early May.

I started with Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds: 'Rocky Top' blend, 'Petite Rouge', 'May Queen', and arugula. The 'Rocky Top' blend is one of my favorites as it’s easy to sow and grow. They don’t disclose exactly what the blend is, but it seems to be about five different types of lettuces that do well in planting Zone 7 where I live. In the summer, my lettuce crop doesn’t do well, so I like to plant in early spring and September.

This year, I planted a bit early, and frost may get some or my entire first crop. I’ll gladly take the chance. But here’s the thing to consider: Lettuce seed is cheap, and after months without fresh lettuce from my garden, it’s worth the risk. The worst that can happen is I will need to re-seed and start over. The best that can happen is I’ll be picking fresh greens the last week of April instead of mid-May.

last years greens

Last year's greens.

By trying the four different types of greens, chances are good most of it will survive and thrive. I’ll pick a few leaves at first and thin whole plants for the best salad greens ever — while my neighbors eat grocery store greens that have made a perilous cross-country voyage wilting on the way.

When June comes around, I start pulling up entire lettuce and arugula plants to make room for cucumbers, peppers, beans, eggplant and tomatoes. At that point, I have way more than I need and go door-to-door gifting bags of mixed greens to my closest neighbors. Half the fun of gardening is giving away the beautiful bounty we gardeners fret over.

Harvesting Salad Greens

I’ve learned over the course of four years that growing greens in the Mid-Atlantic it’s best to pick in the early morning. I have the process down to a science.

First, I clean both sides of my kitchen sink and fill one side with ice water. I pick the greens and bring them into the kitchen. The next step is rinsing the greens in the empty sink then immersing them in the ice water. I swirl them around several times then set them in the empty sink. I refill the big side of the two sinks with ice water and repeat the swirling and then shake the water off.

Next step is to spin the leaves in the salad spinner and bag the clean-dry leaves. After this treatment, I’ve had my greens last up to ten days or more. This taught me that the grocery store greens I had been buying all these years must have had a long trip before they ended up in my kitchen where they might stay fresh for three days at best!

Once you grow your own organic greens, it’s hard to go back to grocery store crap. The good news is greens are easy to grow in a multitude of environments. If you are short on space, try building a salad tray and grow your own greens on a patios or balcony. If you have a small patch of ground, do what I did and install a raised bed.

My 3x6 foot beds are easy to work and allowed me to import special soil. This is a good option if you have a lawn. Put in some raised beds and get rid of that green American carpet so many home owners are obsessed with. Or, just cut out a space in your lawn and grow your own right there in the dirt. Whichever way you choose, it’s great to have options to suit most situations.

Eating Salad Greens

When it’s time to start picking the first few leaves and thin the seedlings, you will have a great salad, wrap, or sandwich to look forward to. So get out and grow some greens this spring!

To get you in the right frame of mind, I’ll share my AAA Sandwich recipe link with you for your first crop of arugula. As a trained chef with over 40 years of cooking experience, I look forward to sharing recipes developed in my home kitchen. Quite often, these recipes are inspired by produce from my organic garden. You, too, can cook fast, easy and healthy foods following my lead.

 ingredients for sandwich

The simple ingredients for the AAA Sandwich.

 AAA Sandwich

AAA Sandwich full of green goodness.

Kurt Jacobson has been a chef for 40 years and, after being schooled in the U.S. Coast Guard, he trained in many restaurants under both kind and maniac chefs. Kurt is starting his fourth year of container and raised-bed organic gardening and is volunteering at Wilbur’s Farm in Kingsville, Maryland, to learn real organic gardening. For this and other recipes using garden greens, and more fresh veggies check out his food blog. For tasty travel ideas check out Kurt's travel blog, Read all of Kurt's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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