When people talk about the art of making a good salad, they are usually referring to what they pour into a bowl or arrange on a plate.
After a season spent learning the intricacies of growing commercial and organic salad greens in our farm’s market garden, I know there’s a lot going on before these works of art and science reach your table. .
Growing and getting a top-notch salad on the plate is actually quite a tough job.
When we first sat down and started planning the vegetable garden, I thought lettuce was going to be one of the easiest and most profitable lines (fast growing, fast turnover, high volume, high demand, high value) and on top of that, I grow many different salad options in my garden, and it’s easy.
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Our market garden, which we started from scratch in a bare, overgrown enclosure, is an end-to-end operation.
We sow, propagate, grow, harvest, wash, pack and deliver everything, so that it reaches our customers in super fresh, “as good as we do” condition.
This is no mean feat, as our first season of salads shows us. The salad we sell to restaurants, cafes and a handful of retailers is a mix of varieties including mizuna, arugula, mini kale, mini spinach, cos, iceberg, komatsuna, coral and red and green frilly lettuce.
Having so many varieties is great for the consumer, as each brings a different flavor and texture. But it can also introduce more variables to consider.
There has been a lot of trial and error to figure out what is the perfect timing, frequency, and density for each variety of salad greens in our climate and environment.
We have found that arugula and red mizuna need to be sown less densely than some companions in the salad garden, or they quickly become “legged” (developing long, thin, pale stems) and crowd to get as fast as possible. . as much light as they can.
While everything grows fast in this weather, some lettuce leaves grow faster than others and suddenly lock up, making harvesting a bit complicated.
A parcel of lettuce may seem to need a few more days until it’s perfectly ripe on a Friday, then you look at it on Monday and it’s already bolted. Why couldn’t he have waited another day?
Some plants, like arugula, hate a very hot and dry period like the one we had recently, and the harvest was terrible, with discolored and tougher leaves, which end up being wasted.
Everyone might want a super warm sunny day at the beach, but that’s not helpful when we get a big order of fresh arugula leaves. Our nifty electric lettuce scoop is effective if all the leaves are at the same stage and height, but nature doesn’t work on an exact growth schedule, and we were getting immature leaves and overmature leaves.
We started cutting by hand, using knives, which takes a lot longer, but you get better quality control.
Growing a good lettuce (like any type of vegetable garden) is not for people who like to sleep in.
Our team of five gardeners, including myself, are ready to start picking at 7am sharp, as we want to be done before sunrise. If we leave it too late in the day, everything starts to wilt, which is your biggest enemy for a fresh salad.
As soon as it is picked, our salad enters our washing and packing room, where we must work quickly to ensure that it reaches our customers in optimal condition.
The salad leaves are poured into a massive tub filled with cool, cold – but not ice cold – water and they are “boiled” to wash away any loose dirt. Then it is put into nets and passed through a large spinner to spin the salad (much like a homemade salad spinner, but on a larger scale), before it is packed into bags.
We experimented to find the perfect amount of moisture for the leaves; too much and they become a soggy mess, too little and they dry out and wither.
Even the packaging was a learning curve. Our first bags had small holes which I found dried out the salad leaves in the fridge and didn’t last long. Now we have bags without holes, and the salad stays fresh longer.
For some of our professional customers, we are testing the packaging of salad leaves in large reusable airtight containers (as we do with our other vegetables), in order to reduce single-use plastic.
If you pick your own salad greens or store those from the supermarket, this is a useful method to try in your refrigerator at home. Even then, we must be careful about the quantity packed in a container, since the weight of too much salad can damage the leaves at the bottom.
Honestly, there’s so much to think about!
Nothing in agriculture is easy but, if I’m honest, our market garden has been very difficult to make profitable.
Operating according to biological and biodynamic principles also raises the bar. If you think removing weeds from your home vegetable garden is hard work, imagine weeding 1.6 hectares of flower beds by hand. Labor costs are ridiculous just to keep weeds under control. So if you’re wondering why organic vegetables cost so much more, imagine a team of people weeding by hand for hours every day.
Although it might have been a slightly frustrating process so far, at the end of the day our customers love the freshness and quality of the green salads, and it’s fun to visit a cafe and eat a salad. I know the team and I would like to have harvested that morning.