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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. Peggy says:

    Ahhh salad greens. Our salad days start in early March here in Maine with greenhouse winter lettuces and mispoona, which are just going by now. I like to start the garden lettuces in flats so I can space them nicely so each lettuce can come to its full potential. I have ten different varieties out in the garden now, and add radicchios, kale leaves and sorrel, and ten more varieties sprouting for the next round. The first strawberries are coming along now to top our salads, adding a lovely seasonal twist to our plates.

  2. Tammy says:

    I love throwing in green onions and beet greens in with my salads, and often end up with some shredded basil and parsley, mainly because my basil is monstrous! I have to keep chopping up basil for all sorts of things to keep them from becoming small trees. :)

    I have to be careful with my salad garden, though – I’m in 7A/Northern Virginia, and my days are very hot, and very long in the summer!

  3. Terry says:

    This year I built a chicken wire cage to put around my salad garden to keep the bunnies out.
    Always try a Romaine and Bibb along with the leaf lettuce and Arugula. Sliced radishes and green onions top it off.

  4. Connie Hughes says:

    In season, I add fresh strawberries and/or raspberries and/or blackberries from my garden to my fresh grown lettuces. I like the deer-tongued shaped lettuces along with arugula. I grow the very spicey forked/leaf Italian arugula – you plant it once and it’ll reseed year after year all over. This year I let it reseed as a path between two of my 8′ square foot gardens – great scent when you step on it. Not to worry, I have lots more in other spots for harvesting.

  5. Linda Lockard says:

    I grew romaine got the first test this year and am anxious to try different greens. I added some sweet basil to my salads Nd loved the flavors together.

  6. Beth D. says:

    Love to add either home grown tomatoes or strawberries to my salad greens. Hoping to win the copy of the Complete Kitchen Garden for more ideas.

  7. christine colley says:

    I like herbs. Fennel leaves (and seeds!), parsley, thyme, basil and tarragon. It doesn’t take much to make the salad flavorful and delicious.

    I love romaine lettuce in the salad, but other greens as well. Spinach, arugula, mesculin with mustard greens, dino kale (lactinato)…even collard greens (uncooked). Its all good.

  8. marcella says:

    I have had lettuces from cooks garden for many years now and have her first cook book. There is such a thrill to going out and picking an assortment of different greens for fresh salad for the meal it decorates the table also!! thanks Ellen

  9. Beverly Thacker says:

    I like to add bell peppers, cucumbers, to my salads. Still learning more about lettuce names. I like the red leaf. Tried starting seeds recently, but they are slow to come up. Thanks for the information.

  10. Burndett Andres says:

    I don’t grow my own salad ingredients right now, but I hope to…one summer very soon and since I’ve never met a salad I didn’t like I plan to start with whatever my local garden center is selling and branch out from there in future years. I like salad mixes that include herbs, particularly basil, and I do always grow a plant or two of that and some curly and flat-leafed parsley in pots in the dooryard. Thanks for this blog and this chance to win the book. You’re a peach! XOXO

  11. Mimi says:

    I like to add fresh herbs, too, especially basil and parsley. I use the weedy purslane when it’s fresh and succulent. I didn’t know about the golden upright variety! Also some things, such as peas, carrots, asparagus and broccoli, I like to cooked a bit before adding to the salad. I love your website!

  12. Alexis says:

    My lettuces and cilantro, along with an overabundance of thyme, are already blooming like crazy in my Litchfield county garden. I’ve been picking like crazy. However, the basil is loping along trying to figure out how to handle the mercurial weather we’ve been having. This is my second year with a full fledged vegetable garden with some fraises des bois. As a weekender, I’m trying to balance what I want with what I can do….Love your blog!

  13. susan b says:

    My favorite lettuce variety is Freckles, a green romaine with red markings. We love arugula, too. But our absolutely favorite green is spinach.

  14. Sharon says:

    Oh, I would so love this book! I am a salad freak, grow many different greens but have been spurred to add varieties mentioned here. Some of my new loves are strawberry spinach and red veined spinach. Years ago, I thought I would make a business of ornamental vegetable gardens but find that I can satisfy that urge with my own, planting in some patterns and mixing colors.

  15. Geri says:

    I’m another person who has not yet grown salad greens but would love to do it. Ellen’s comments on sowing directly and resowing through the season give me hope that it could still be doable this year. I am a huge fan (and consumer) of colorful salads. I love to use some red lettuce–arugula, red leaf lettuce, and/or red romaine–along with green ones, and I like to add orange sections, berries, and toasted nuts, with a balsamic, basil, and finely chopped walnut vinaigrette. I have my own raspberry patch,and use my raspberries in salads (as well as on their own, with cereal, and/or yogurt). They are amazingly flavorful and have nothing in common with those bland things in the supermarket.

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