The Edible Explorer: Plant now for autumn salads

Photos courtesy of Doreen Howard.
Flower heads on Thai basil don't stop the plant from producing fresh leaves as they do on other types of basil types.

For someone who despised dirt under her five-inch, crimson-lacquered finger nails, I’ve traveled a long road as an edible explorer to become an addicted gardener. The journey started out of necessity in the 1980s when hyper-inflation taxed a grocery budget that was already strained by ravenous teenage boys. I planted a huge vegetable garden in desperation and invested in a box of fake fingernails.

I’ve learned to grow almost every edible on the planet from heirloom tomatoes to blueberries and even glucose-lowering Amorphophallus konjac. Also known as the corpse flower, its edible tuber produces a six-foot, glossy burgundy flower that reeks of rotted meat in late March every year as a bonus.

This week I’m planting basil and salad greens to harvest about the time frost sets on the pumpkins. Basil that was planted in June stops producing leaves during the heat of August and tries mightily to flower just about the time the main tomato crop ripens.  Sow seeds now for a fresh crop full of flavorful oils to complement later-ripening beefsteaks and heirlooms.

My friend Rose Marie Nichols-McGee, herb guru, blogs in The Gardener’s Pantry that August is perfect for sowing basil seeds, as the ground is still warm. She says to barely cover the seeds (about 1/8 inch deep) and keep the soil moist.

I especially like Thai basil (see first photo above) this time of year. Not only does it germinate quickly, but you don’t have to worry about pinching off flowers to keep the plant growing. Pots of Thai basil can be brought indoors, too, and placed in a sunny window for another month or two of zesty leaves. The attractive purple blooms are also tasty when minced and sprinkled over Oriental stir-fry dishes.

Salad greens are a luxury that is essential in my opinion. I always have a couple of pots and a window box or two on my back porch. (Click above to see second photo.) Potted salads avoid the heat on hot days (stick them in the shade), rabbits are thwarted, and the backdoor location make it easy to tend and harvest the greens.  I especially like a small Bibb lettuce, Garden Baby, and a red Romaine, Outredgeous.

Because lettuce is a cool season crop, even container soil is probably too warm for good germination in August.  Trick seeds into sprouting vigorously by freezing them for a week or two before planting. Chilling triggers a hormone in the seeds that stimulates germination.

Incorporate alfalfa pellets, cottonseed meal, or kelp meal into container soil. These are slow-release organic fertilizers that will feed your greens throughout their growing cycle. Gently press the chilled seeds into soil with the palm of your hand; lettuce needs light to sprout. Keep containers evenly moist.

Your first salad should be ready in three or four weeks. Cut outer leaves so that growth will continue from the center crown. I extend autumn harvest by covering the containers with newspapers on frosty nights and ultimately bringing them indoors for the night when temperatures drop into the 20s (-2 C).

Those late lettuces are luscious with freshly picked pears, sliced, toasted pecans, and bleu cheese crumbles.

If it’s edible and unusual, Doreen Howard figures out a way to grow it in her USDA Zone 4b garden.  She’ll try anything once, even smelly Durian.  A former garden editor at Woman’s Day, she writes regularly for The American Gardener and The Old Farmer’s Almanac’s Garden Guide.

Editor’s note: For more gardening at the Monitor, click on our main gardening page. Our blog archive. Our RSS feed.

You may also want to visit Gardening With the Monitor on Flickr. If you join the group (it’s free), you can upload your garden photos — and possibly win a prize. Deadline is Aug. 11. (Midnight tonight!) Join the discussions and get answers to your gardening questions.

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