What possible kinds of salad greens can one grow when it is 105 degrees Fahrenheit on Monday and 50 degrees Fahrenheit (and spitting hail the size of nickels) on Thursday of the same week? Granted, it has been a strange week, but it still points to the problem: if one is looking to grow salad greens when it isn't fall or winter (or early spring) in Southern California, one is almost out of luck. It's warm so the lettuce turns bitter and bolts quickly, the arugula gets hotter than wasabi, the spinach goes to pot, and even the chard (though not technically a salad green) gets sad. For someone who eats a lot of salads, it's a pretty dismal salad-growing scene, I tell you.
Or at least, that is what I used to think.
Let me say here, before I go any further, that I still supplement my salad greens from the farmer's market. I religiously buy bags of baby arugula and sometimes lettuce too. However, I've found that I've been able to supplement these purchases very substantially with the following three crops that seem to be growing quite happily, despite the variations in weather and water that Southern California has thrown our way.
1) Orach (aka Mountain Spinach, French Spinach)
Orach stays leafy in the cool weather, and like other green vegetables, goes to bolt when it warms up, but unlike other leafy greens, the flavor stays great, even as it goes to seed. What's even better is that the flower heads are slightly grainy, salty, and succulent, and taste fabulous tossed in a salad or stir fry too. In fact, I think I sometimes like the flower heads more than the leaves. Overall, the flavor is very mild and slightly salty. The leaves are very flexible and don't have too much texture, but they add a lot of color and nutrients to a green salad. The small leaves are remarkably tender, but the larger leaves need to be stripped of their tough veins before tossing into a salad. Orach is a good vegetable, indeed a beautiful one, and I'm happy to have planted it in late February, for it has been treating my salad bowl quite wonderfully for a couple months now.
2) McGregor's Favorite Beet
I love beets in all forms. My parents have pictures of me as a baby with red beets smeared from head to toe. (Can you imagine what it must have been like to clean up after baby-me? It couldn't have been fun. Thanks, Mom and Dad.) I like beets even when they're green, their greens, that is. One of the venders at the Santa Monica farmers' market sells baby beet greens unmixed with any other green, and on the few occasions a year I get to go to the Santa Monica market, I always buy myself a big bag of baby beet greens as a gift to myself. I love their salty succulence, the way they feel between my teeth as I bite down on my cool salad. This fall, I culled my beet crop relentlessly, every "throw-away" seedling hitting my salad plate. But here, in the late spring and summer, beets just don't grow as well. The roots get woody and bitter quickly, so I didn't plan on planting a summer crop. That was until I found this little heirloom from Scotland (Scotland? Seriously? How can a Scottish plant do so well in SoCal?) who is breaking all my beety-expectations. It's a beet grown primarily for the leaves, which are lance-shaped and tender, even when mature. Although planted in late February, McGregor's Favorite has livened up my salads for only a month or so.
3) Mâche (aka Lamb's Lettuce, Corn Salad, Doucette, Fetticus, Field Salad, Nüsslisalat, and and even sometimes Rapunzel, yes, that Rapunzel)
Once again, this is a plant that bolts, but it grows so fast and the flavor doesn't diminish in the heat, that as long as I have succession-planted a steady supply of this little number, I'm in good hands. And oh, good is indeed the word. The texture of a healthy butter lettuce and a good, green flavor, combined with many more nutrients than lettuce, this is a quality addition to the garden. As well, it reseeds itself happily and provides me with seeds to spare. (Speaking of seeds, would anyone like some mâche seed? I could send a few people seed I've collected from my own plants to get them started in their own gardens. Let me know in the comments if you're interested.) I imagine that once the days are consistently over 90 degrees Fahrenheit here this may not hold up as well, but I've been enjoying this for months and expect to enjoy it another month or so. Then, I'll plant it again in September.
And on to the beans, planted in late February, of which I've already been able to harvest a handful of each snap variety.
1) Pencil Pod (Black) Wax
Although the soft gold color never fails to attract me to wax beans at the market, when I get home and taste them, they unfortunately usually live up to their name: they're waxy, tasteless, and have none of that juicy-beany-goodness that I love in a bean. That experience, so disappointing, hasn't not proven true with this bean. I'm not sure if it is because they are just so fresh when I pluck them and eat them right in the garden, or if it is the variety—an oldie but a goodie—but these are just darn good beans. They snap loudly. They crunch juicily. They make me smile.
2) Blue Coco
Covered in gorgeous green and purple foliage and lavender flowers, this variety is a visual knockout. Luckily, it's good in the kitchen as well as the garden. This bean has two distinct types of crops. When I catch the beans young and slender, they're amazingly sweet and beany, perfect french-type beans to eat raw or lightly steamed. When I'm slower on the draw, the beans mature to be large and flat, and are still great eating, but in this case, they need to be stringed and cooked longer, preferably with olive oil and garlic. In either case, they're delicious. As a side note, like every other purple bean I know, they turn green as soon as they've been blanched.
A contender indeed, especially in the realm of productivity. I didn't plant many of these guys, but boy, the few that I have are covered with beans. The beans are relatively straight, perfectly cylindrically-podded, and sweet and crunchy. They're an all-around good bean. I'd like to try planting them again in the fall, for I think I can get two happy crops from this variety.
I've been combining all of these crops lately in large salads drizzled with a mustardy vinaigrette. But now, I'm putting the challenge in your hands. Consider this palate of vegetables: what masterpiece would you create with them?