growing a salad-lover’s garden, with ellen ogden

Ellen Ogden's kitchen gardenI’M RESOWING GREENS GALORE, spurred onward by the welcome shift in weather, and also by a chat with Ellen Ecker Ogden, author of of “The Complete Kitchen Garden.” Thanks to Ellen, my palette of ingredients to try is widening, and I’ve got several new variations on vinaigrette to taste-test, too. Get her advice below.

Salad lover's garden plan from Ellen Ecker OgdenEllen calls herself as a “food artist.” No wonder, because since 1980, when she moved to Zone 4Bish Vermont after studying art in college, she has been making living collages of lettuces April through October, “splashed with dabs of red orach, fronds of chervil and rosettes of claytonia.” You probably know Ellen as co-founder of The Cook’s Garden in 1984, a breakthrough seed catalog at the time (but since sold), and as author of the 2003 cookbook “From the Cook’s Garden.” Last week we spoke about what she calls “a salad-lover’s garden,” more than just your average row or two of lettuce.

Ellen Ecker Ogden

my salad-garden q&a with ellen ogden

ELLEN OGDEN and I talked salads on my public-radio show and podcast. The highlights of our conversation:

salad-lover’s garden tips from ellen ogden

  • Direct sow your salad greens, says Ellen. It’s easier than sowing indoors and transplanting, and “they pop up fast, and are fast to produce—in just a few weeks.”
  • Re-sow small amounts right through into August in the North.  “That’s really the key. I start my greens every two weeks–small, short rows of maybe 5 feet long.” Succession sowings can continue slightly longer if salads are grown under cover—and of course in warmer zones, the timing shifts with the later frost dates.
  • Be opportunistic. “Stick the rows everywhere,” says Ellen, including between other plants. “Between rows of peas, for instance—and I have cilantro and dill growing between rows of garlic right now.”
  • Mix it up! “Herbs, greens, and aromatics are how I think of what I grow,” says Ellen, recommending such must-have salad “extras” as mint and lemon basil, in particular. She grows about 24 kinds of salad greens at any given time, rotating among an even wider palette of possibilities according to the times of the season.
  • Think about creating “a tapestry of colors,” not all medium-green greens. The dark red of radicchio with lighter greens of butterhead lettuce are among her essentials, “and always arugula—there’s never too much arugula,” Ellen says.
  • Likewise vary the texture. Greens may be oak-like and ruffled or positively frilly, or stiffer and simpler. One of her favorite add-in’s for texture, in the salad bowl and in the garden: the tiny, ferny leaves of chervil, which also adds a licorice-like punch to the salad bowl (start with just a little).
  • Purslane, claytonia and more: Speaking of unusual leaf shapes and textures: Ellen recommends golden purslane–with a lemony flavor, and not ground-hugging like the purslane we may know, but upright in its habit. And at the cooler ends of the growing season, she makes room for claytonia, with its tender, small lily-pad shaped leaf, and tiny white flowers at harvest time. It’s too delicate to be a crop for the marketplace, she says.  “It’s the kind of thing you can only grow in your own salad lover’s garden.”
  • Can’t you get all of this in a pre-packaged seed mix, or mesclun? Ellen prefers to sow the individual ingredients, since each one grows at a slightly different rate, and then she can mix-and-match herself.
  • Don’t forget the edible flowers. “I adore calendulas,” says Ellen, who has a soft spot for borage, too, with its beautiful flowers on a beautiful plant—but admittedly it’s a space hog, and resows itself. She grows lots of violas and pansies, and this year sowed all kinds of nasturtiums, trailing and otherwise. The creamy white one called ‘Milkmaid’ is a favorite. “I like to eat all the parts of the plant,” she says.
  • At harvest time, use your scissors—clipping low on the plant. (Note from Margaret: I have a pair of big but lightweight craft-style scissors—you know, the kind with bright plastic handles—in every one of my garden tool bags. A great tool!)
  • Dress it with the right, light vinaigrette–which Ellen customizes (as below) to suit what goes into each particular salad bowl.

ellen’s salad-dressing variations

ELLEN OGDEN learned the basic proportions of vinaigrette years ago from her mother, and her grandmother, and their 3 parts oil, 1 part vinegar wisdom hasn’t really changed. But in the years since, Ellen has been tinkering with the other ingredients to best complement the incredible range of salad greens that she grows. “I like a nice, light vinaigrette,” she says, but the details vary.

“If the leaves are soft and buttery, I’ll substitute lemon for the vinegar,” says Ellen. “A tough romaine warrants bold balsamic vinegar and a teaspoon of Dijon. Spicy blends of salad greens are sweetened with a tablespoon of maple syrup.” And with bitter greens, she adds a little bit of something creamy something–such as yogurt, or crème fraiche.

Get the recipes for three of Ellen’s favorite salad-dressing variations: her lemon vinaigrette, garlic dressing, and hot balsamic vinaigrette. Ellen’s overall approach to homemade salad dressing, plus her maple balsamic vinaigrette recipe are at this link on her website.

Ellen’s recent story on the salad-lover’s garden is at this link.

how to win ‘the complete kitchen garden’ book

The Complete Kitchen Garden by Ellen OgdenELLEN OGDEN shared two signed copies of her 2011 book “The Complete Kitchen Garden” with me, to in turn share with you. It’s packed with designs for edible gardens, and with 100 of Ellen’s fresh-from-the-garden recipes.

To enter to win one of the books, all you have to do is answer this question:

What “extra” or “extras” beyond lettuce do you crave in your salads, and/or: Do you have a favorite lettuce variety of all?

(Me, I’m arugula-crazy, like Ellen, and also liberally add leaflets of flat-leaf parsley to my salad bowl. As for varieties, I’ve never seen a more beautiful red than ‘Merlox’ from Frank Morton, but I wouldn’t be without tried-and-true oldtime ‘Black Seeded Simpson’ either.)

Feeling shy? Just say, “count me in” or the equivalent, and your entry will count.

Winners will be chosen, and emailed with the news, after entries close at midnight on Monday, June 24. Good luck to all.

(All photos courtesy of Ellen Ecker Ogden; used with permission.)

  1. Tisa Wenger says:

    My salad mix-ins these days are arugula, sorrel, salad burnet, violas, and radish flowers (because the radishes all went to seed too fast- but the flowers are delicious!). I also add other herbs (cilantro, parsley, mint, basil) depending on mood and season. Soon I’ll have borage and nasturtiums to add to the mix. I’ve been saving my own lettuce seed – tender and delicious and nicely adapted to my garden. I think it’s a blend of the green and red oakleaf varieties that I once bought.

  2. Sharon Elaine says:

    I grow green and red leaf lettuce, 3 kinds of spinach, kaleand swiss chard. I prefer kale and spinach to lettuce. Just moved back to OH from TN – trying to readjust. We put in raised beds for the first time and so far I’m liking them.

  3. Sue Brooks says:

    I grow about 20 different lettuces, arugula, spinach, kale, beets, and swiss chard. My favorite mix in is garlic pesto made from garlic scapes (fresh scapes in salad are amazing too). I really want to try using some flowers this year.

  4. Carol says:

    I love arugula, too. One herb that I like in a salad is salad burnet, because it adds a cucumber note before the cucumbers in my garden are ready. I also like the peppery flavor of nasturtium blossoms. Each year I plant a variety of lettuces–always at least one new variety.

  5. Peggy says:

    Currently, I love the flashy trout back lettuce, prefer greens like salad burnet, fresh small radishes, sweet peppers and real fresh tomatoes in my salad.

  6. Lynn S. says:

    I add dill, parsley and basil to my salads, along with chives and pretty chive blossoms. I love Ellen’s recipes for simple salad dressings!

  7. Peg Denton says:

    I waited all year for butterhead lettuces from my garden. None are large enough to eat yet, and today I put shade cloth over my lettuce garden hoping to forestall bolting, as 97 degree temperatures aren’t that great for lettuce!

  8. Donna says:

    I am new to vegetable gardening, and haven’t gotten into lettuce yet. My summer fave is a good tomato with any green. I will have to incorporate a lettuce row or two into the landscape this summer.

  9. ellen says:

    Don’t forget the beet greens—my favorite for color and taste, along with lots of nasturtiums. I end up with no beets because I keep picking the greens:)

  10. I’m more of a spinach girl myself. I could eat a spinach salad every night of the year. I usually add toasted sunflower seeds and feta. I keep it simple! This year I did try Johnny’s Beta Mix with all beet greens and really liked it. It’s still going well after the salad mix has bolted.

  11. Sally B says:

    ‘Marshall’, a dark red romaine was outstanding. ‘Jericho’, a green romaine lived up to its reputation for being slow to bolt. I also loved ‘Skyphos’, though this is the last year Fedco Seeds will offer it due to its utility patent. This post has inspired me to plant more lettuce, despite our unseasonably hot June.

  12. Peggy says:

    After receiving a new garden cart, I drilled holes in my little red wagon, filled it with a good mixture of soil, divided into sections and put a different lettuce in each section. For someone with a small home and yard this is lovely on my deck and so wonderful to walk out and cut a fresh salad for my dinner. I would love and enjoy that book. Thanks!

  13. Nancy Marie Allen says:

    Spinach is my favorite green to mix with red and green lettuce, but I also enjoy adding fresh dill and parsley :)

  14. Linda says:

    Love radishes and fruit in my mixed greens salads. Can’t wait for homegrown Sunglold and cherry tomatoes! Yum!

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