In the life of a garden it always feels like you are in the middle of something, the middle of a season, weeding, watering or harvesting.  But rarely anywhere near the end of gardening.  There was a definitive beginning when the decision was made to pick up a spade and turn the earth in order to grow your own food.  Since that time the gardener finds themselves in a constant cycle of tasks and chores.

Within this grand scheme are many little cycles of starting and ending, sowing and reaping, spring and autumn.  You notice more things when you’re in a garden, especially in the swing of things in the height of summer when the plants are at peak performance.   Some plants are a kind of set and forget – well weeding and watering aside, until the harvest begins like tomatoes, beans, and zucchini.  Then they just keep going and you find often the more you pick the more you get.  However, you can’t expect this with all things.  Some need a little helping hand to be able to remain on the menu throughout the entire summer season.

How to grow salad in the heat

One of the things we most like to eat on a hot day is a tender yet crisp salad, which tastes all the fresher for being picked straight from the garden only moments before. Unfortunately, this goes against everything the lettuce actually wants to do.  Most leafy crops often found in our favourite salads don’t actually like growing at this time of year.   In the heat of summer salad greens quickly go bitter and bolt to seed at the first opportunity.

They prefer the cool conditions of spring and autumn and during these times they flourish.  Spring often has a chill in the air and as much as we want to eat summer food, we are still clinging to the warm and hearty meals.  By the time autumn rolls around we are often over the summer fare and tomatoes don’t hold that same delight as that first one of the season and we begin to yearn for comfort food.

So we find ourselves at an impasse.  We like salads in the heat but they don’t really like to grow in the heat.  But here is a way around this.  The young salad leaves, before they become bitter and hardened with age, are sweet, tender and full of promise.  These are the ones we want to eat.  We must harvest them in their prime, before they realise they don’t like the heat. However, taking them so young can leave a gap in the garden.

The key to salad all season long is to plant new ones every few weeks.  If you sow seeds or plant seedlings, mark it in your diary and every two to three weeks pop in some more.  Not loads or you’ll end up with a glut, just enough to feed your family for up to three weeks.  This will create a cycle known as succession planting where you will always have tiny seedlings and some growing bigger and some for eating, that will be perfectly delicious every time.

Other tips to keep your salad sweet is keep them well watered – a nice deep watering every other day is much better than briefly splashing the hose at it daily.  Feeding your plants with liquid feed weekly or fortnightly will also help them to taste good, as they won’t have to work too hard to find what they need.  A well fed plant will be at its healthiest and in turn will make you well fed and healthy too.

Pop some compost into the soil after harvest to keep the soil healthy and well fed and if it is particularly hot, make some shade protection for your salad crops and they will thank you for it.

Each time you plant new seeds or seedlings you are planting hope.  Hope for a delicious meal at the end of it all that will be shared with loved ones around a table in weeks to come.  Each time is a new beginning and with the outcome in mind, each new beginning should be laced with love.

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Sarah O’Neil lives on a small 3 acre lifestyle block. The family moved from the big city to the country in 2007. Sarah has published 3 books, including The Good Life, four glorious seasons in my country garden. She's also an award-winning blogger, winning a Yates Vegie Growing Challenge and still writes regularly. Visit Sarah’s website at sarahthegardener.co.nz.

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