In our house we like the option of a sizable salad for lunch and perhaps a small side salad for dinner. Greens coming in from the garden as soon as possible and early tomatoes are two key ingredients as are the early leaves of tasty, fragrant herbs. It’s important to get some of this started from seed inside, in a window or in a greenhouse or even in an accessible cold frame when the weather may not yet be cooperating.
I plant a sizable amount of dill and basil inside early in a small flat pot for later transplanting. Arugula, cilantro, and both curly parsley and Italian parsley are planted directly into the garden as are chives, as many varieties of onions as possible from seeds or sets, and leeks. Often I grow chives in big pots. Also, some of the dill and some of the basil can be put into pots and the rest into the yard near several varieties of lettuce and a tender variety of spinach. Most of these greens can again be planted later in the spring so that additional more tender plants will be available later in the summer as well.
I plant a few different varieties of cherry tomatoes intended mostly for salads in space near the greens. Some radishes, early carrots and kohlrabi are also great to have in the ground as well as cucumbers. Most of the cucumbers as well as multiple varieties or sweet peppers will come along later. You can even add some hot peppers sparingly to salads as well. Also, I plant beets some of which are cooked for separate dishes and some occasionally sliced and added to salads later in the summer.
Early salads are composed mostly of greens. Leaf lettuce is ready early as are basil leaves and sprigs of dill. Arugula, cilantro, parsley, chives and green onions can be cut up and added. Later, baby spinach leaves can be added along with a few early radishes sliced up and added in with some baby carrots, as they mature. With luck we start to get a few early cherry tomatoes. Vinegar and olive oil is all that’s needed with a bit of freshly ground pepper for a great salad.The freshly cut dill sprigs and cut-up basil leaves provide very distinctive smells.
Later we can take advantage of some early larger tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet and hot peppers, and some cut up tender uncooked kohlrabi as well. The kohlrabi is soft but crunchy and gives interesting texture when added sparingly to a salad composed mostly of greens. Kohlrabi is a mild-flavored turnip.
In midsummer and late summer salads the lettuce comes from the tougher or heavier-leafed varieties or can even include some shredded cabbage. Any heavy shredded lettuce or cabbage can be softened a bit by soaking for an hour of so in cold water with ice cubes added. You can mix in the shredded lettuce or cabbage with the other greens or use it to prepare a coleslaw. Basil and dill and other herbs will be available all summer. Even later when basil and dill are going through their early seeding and flowering stages the budding heads or bolting stems are just cut away and the plants will redirect their energies to leaves in the lower areas. Often the lower leaves of basil plants yellow substantially. As soon as you see that, remove them and continue to do so every day. Also, pinch off the flowering buds and the plant’s remaining leaves will more rapidly develop mature, but greener leaves that can be plucked when they are about the size of a half-dollar and then used in salads. Eventually, as you get far more basil than you can use every day you can dry some and also freeze the rest–same with the dill. Frozen dill and basil can be put into stir-fry or soup. The hard dill stems which are not suitable for salads can be cut up in small pieces and put into soups. In a separate location away from the dill and other plants used for salad, I plant dill that specifically goes to seed. Some of it is dried and the seeds collected for various cooked dishes, while some of the fresh dill seed heads are used with the right size cucumbers to make dill pickles. The arugula and cilantro can be used until their main stems bolt. Parsley in later summer can be progressively cut back and the leaves dried for inclusion with the other dried spices. Eventually, the chives can be cut back, cut up and frozen. Frozen, cut-up chives can be used directly in soups or in other cooked dishes.