The Inspiring World of Salad Gardens: A Guide to Growing Fresh and Healthy Everyday Meals
I used to be so frustrated by salads. They seemed to be embraced only by those who had already achieved a level of health and fitness that I could never fathom. I didn’t really have great healthy eating role models at home when I was growing up. Dinner vegetables used to consist of those budget frozen bags of carrot cubes, corn, and peas, which had been boiled to the point that they were mushy and all the bits took on the same cardboard-like flavor.
It wasn’t until I was almost 30 that I took on a personal nutrition challenge and finally was pushed to figure out how to make salads work for me. All of a sudden, my weight became more manageable, my skin looked better, and from that point forward, I felt like I had a better sense of my own internal nutrition gauge. I started being able to hear what my body was telling me – if I was dehydrated, lacking fresh food, or out of balance in some other way. It was a pivotal point for my personal health, and I attribute a lot of that to my new favorite food. SALAD.
But when I moved to Japan, everything turned upside down. I was escorted into the cafeteria lunch program from my employer. I was excited to try foods and flavors with cultural and regional significance, but there was an unexpected problem that came with my new culinary adventure.
The lunches were high calorie with a generous serving of rice at every meal. The importance of rice is greater than what makes it to the bowl. The dried grasses are used as mulch and roofing, rice bran is cooked with fresh bamboo shoots to remove bitterness, and the water from cleaning rice can be used as a natural detergent. It is a culturally significant resource, but when I started eating it on a daily basis, my body protested. I got puffy, bloated, sad, and uncomfortable.
It is a strange position to be in – I was eating the same thing as my coworkers, but my body was not happy. I started taking probiotics to ease my digestive transition, but it only helped so much.
Perhaps it is due to generations worth of digestive practice. My Scandinavian ancestors ate potatoes and baked bread, but Japanese peoples’ ancestors have been evolving along-side rice-centric diets for even longer. I wanted to do my best to acclimate to Japanese culture, but fighting centuries of biological training seemed like too big a battle.
So there was one thing I decided to hold on to for my personal health – my salad lunch habit.
The local store stocked lettuce irregularly. It was an hour drive to the “fancy” grocery store that had a handful of options. But the salad staples I had grown to love and look forward to were nowhere in sight.
So after gaining permission to turn an overgrown weedy side yard into my new garden, I started growing everything I needed for salad. Growing your own salad garden is the best way to get the highest quality salad to your exact liking.
My passion for salad might be to the point of being a bit silly, but growing a salad garden has given me a huge amount of joy, therapy, and nutritional health. So I hope to share my experience and thoughts with others in hopes to inspire others to gain the same benefits.
Salads Gardening and Joy
Salad gardens can be incredibly inspiring.
Salad gardens are truly inspiring, and their beauty is undeniable. Just a little bit of effort can beget an invariable rainbow of veg. Imagine the vibrant hues of red, orange, and yellow-stem chard, the deep purple kale, and whimsical nasturtium leaves that resemble lily pads floating on water.
The colors and textures of these garden gems are a feast for the eyes, transforming a simple patch of earth into a living Monet, colors amplified in the glistening with dew drops. But the inspiration goes beyond mere aesthetics. Growing and eating in tune with the rhythm of the seasons becomes a nearly spiritual experience.
Witnessing the transformation of dirt into nourishing food that sustains life is awe-inspiring. It reminds us of the interconnectedness of all living things and our roles in the ecosystem. In addition, salad gardens offer a meal of beauty that surpasses what can be found in a supermarket.
The variety of plants, the everyday creativity involved in integrating what’s available, and the integration of edible flowers can create a visual and culinary tapestry that is both delightful and unique. Each meal becomes a work of art, inviting us to appreciate the beauty and abundance of nature’s bounty. The looks and feels are just the start.
Salads and Health
Eating salad is arguably the best health habit you can adopt.
Incorporating fresh vegetables and greens into your diet has numerous health benefits. Salads are packed with vitamins, minerals, and fiber, which support digestion, boost the immune system, and promote overall well-being.
By growing your own salad garden, you have complete control over the quality of the produce you consume, ensuring that you and your family enjoy the freshest, pesticide-free ingredients available.
Foods from a garden are not only incredibly fresh and flavorful, but they also offer a higher level of nutrition compared to their grocery store counterparts. The moment a vegetable is harvested, it begins to lose nutrients. This process continues during transportation, storage, and the time it spends on supermarket shelves.
In contrast, when you grow your own fruits and vegetables, you have the opportunity to pick them at the peak of ripeness, just moments before they are consumed. This means that the vegetables retain more of their vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, which are essential for maintaining good health.
Additionally, garden-grown vegetables are often grown using organic or sustainable practices, eliminating the risk of exposure to harmful pesticides and chemicals.
By spending time outside, you can get some moderate exercise and be exposed to natural light, reinforcing our circadian rhythms.
By cultivating your own garden, you have the power to nourish yourself and your family with nutrient-dense, wholesome produce that truly supports your well-being.
Check out these impressive salad facts:
There can be no arguing that making salad your go-to daily lunch choice is a great habit to adopt!
According to permaculture design experts, salad and herb gardening should be close to the zones most often occupied by humans. This is so that they can be easily accessed and enjoyed on a daily basis.
Salad gardens are a joyful component of permaculture design. Permaculture is a sustainable approach to gardening that aims to mimic natural ecosystems, promoting biodiversity, and minimizing waste.
By incorporating salad gardens into your garden, yard or patio, you create a symbiotic relationship between plants and the environment. The diversity of plants in your garden attracts beneficial insects and pollinators, contributing to a thriving ecosystem.
Salad gardens are a practical addition to any permaculture setup, providing a continuous supply of fresh produce throughout the growing season.
Always at Peak Freshness
Growing salad is also highly practical. One of the significant advantages of having your own salad garden is the ability to fresh pick your ingredients.
When you pluck leafy greens and vegetables straight from your garden, they are at their peak freshness and flavor. Unlike store-bought produce that may have traveled long distances and spent days in refrigeration, homegrown salad greens are less likely to wilt or mold quickly. By eliminating the lag time between harvest and consumption, you ensure that your salads retain their crispness and highest possible nutritional value.
This practicality not only saves you from the disappointment of finding wilted greens in your fridge but also reduces food waste, allowing you to fully enjoy the freshness and vitality of your garden-to-table salads.
Planning your salad garden
Start with the salad.
Before you plan your garden, my recommendation is to take some time to think about what kinds of salad you want to eat. You might even want to take a week or two to research salad inspiration, try out new flavor combinations, and decide on what kind of veg you want to start growing on your own.
How to compose the perfect salad.
Through a few years of practice, I have devised a strategy for a great salad that is nutritious and sustaining. The greens and vegetables will be great for your health. The harmony of something sweet, something from the allium family and a dressing will make your flavor experience interesting. Nuts and protein make it filling and will sustain you until dinner. And the eye candy is just another opportunity to bring joy into our lives.
Kale, chard, arugula, spinach, beet greens, watercress, nasturtium leaves, shredded green or purple cabbage…
Chicken, shrimp, egg, grilled tofu, meatballs, cubed steak, grilled fish, canned tuna with mayo…
Nuts & Seeds
Almonds, walnuts, sesame, pecans, cashews, pistachios, pine nuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds…
Red or white onions, garlic, chives, green onions, shallots…
Dried or fresh berries, cubed apple, orange wedges, pomegranate seeds…
Primal ranch (my favorite!), pesto, miso honey, soy tahini, balsamic vinaigrette
Beans / Veg.
Corn, radish, peppers, chickpeas, okra, broccoli, cauliflower, cherry tomatoes…
Kimchi, sauerkraut, capers, nori, bonito flakes, pickles, everything bagel seasoning…
Edible flowers: nasturium, pansies, begonia, monarda, borage…
Favorite Go-to Salad Combinations
- Warm wilted kale
- Caramelized onions
- Poached eggs
- Toasted pine nuts
- Halved cherry tomatoes
- Bagel seasoning
- Borage blossoms
- Your greens of choice
- Halved fresh strawberries
- Grilled chicken
- Balsamic dressing
- Your greens of choice
- Canned anchovies
- Nori flakes
- Bonito flakes
- Nasturtium blossoms
- Miso, honey, oil dressing
Rustic Steak Salad
- Your greens of choice
- Roasted fingerling potato halves
- Cubed steak
- Thin-shaved shallots
- Sunflower seeds
- Sliced gherkins
But to be honest the best salad is the one you have. So look at what you have on hand and get creative.
The most basic pattern to devise a delicious salad pulls inspiration from Samin Nosrat’s SALT ACID FAT HEAT. Start with what you have, then fill in the flavor blanks.
How to build a salad garden
This might be intimidating, but it’s great to start small! Even if you don’t have the space or ability to create a fully self-sufficient salad garden, growing your own greens or amendments can still create a huge amount of satisfaction.
Small is ok!
Whether due to intimidation or lack of space, starting small is ok! Use what you have available. You would be amazed at how far just a few plants go. You also don’t need borders, beds, or any fancy installations to get started. That’s the magic of growing food. You put seeds in dirt and that’s essentially it!
Sidewalk borders, next to the driveway, under larger plants, behind sheds… all of these places have potential for salad production! A salad garden doesn’t have to be a perfect rectangle. You can place a variety of plants around your property or weave salad plants throughout formal landscaped areas. Harvest time feels like time to forage!
Mulch & matter.
Compost is great and it doesn’t have to be high-tech! Depending on your vulnerability to pests, kitchen scraps can go straight in the ground. Raked leaves, grass clippings or wood chips can be used as mulch to keep moisture in the ground and reduce dirt splashing onto leaves.
Locations can be fairly flexible. Use what you have! Be it patio pots, driveway edges or an expansive plot of land, you will learn what works as you go.
I started slowly by adding few edible plants to my balcony plant collection.
The sun and water requirements will depend on what you want to grow, so follow the instructions from the seed package or from your local nursery. Consider using raised beds, containers, or even vertical gardening techniques if you have limited space.
Prepare the soil by removing any trash, large weeds, rocks, or debris and amend it with organic matter, such as compost or well-rotted manure, to enhance its fertility.
Next, consider the layout and arrangement of your salad garden. You can create designated rows or plant in a more informal, intermingled style. Utilize the principles of permaculture by incorporating mulch layering, companion planting, and natural pest control methods to support a little ecosystem.
You might choose to start by sowing a variety of salad greens, such as lettuces, spinach, and arugula, as the foundation of your garden. Keep your seedling moist, watering your garden regularly, keeping the soil consistently moist but not waterlogged. Finally, monitor for pests, diseases, and weeds, and take necessary measures to maintain the health and vitality of your salad garden. With care and patience, you’ll be rewarded with a lovely harvest.
A basic tool selection to get started.
The most important thing you need is determination! After that, your tool needs will depend on the scale and your vision. The most basic tools will be:
- Hand shovel
- Weeding tool
- Watering can
- Salad spinners
- Either a big bowl or packable containers
To ensure consistent ongoing harvests from your salad garden, try this harvesting technique: start by harvesting the outer leaves of leafy greens such as lettuces, spinach, and kale, rather than uprooting the entire plant. This method allows the plants to continue growing and producing new leaves.
Harvest leafy greens when they reach a size that is suitable for consumption, ensuring they are still tender and flavorful. For herbs, regularly pinch off sprigs and leaves, promoting bushier growth. As for vegetables and fruits, harvest them when they reach their peak ripeness, usually indicated by vibrant colors and firmness.
Seeds to Consider
The sky is the limit, but don’t be afraid to start modestly! I have a habit of buying more seeds than I use… but it’s my joy, so I don’t regret it! 🙂
*Pro-tip for those buying seeds in Japan from Rakuten: Rakuten works a bit differently. In Japan, you are more likely to need to pay for shipping. I’ve had good luck with the seller, Gardener’s Shop Ivy. If you buy all from the same seller, you only pay shipping from one seller.
If you are in Japan and buying foreign seeds, here is a handy reference map for USDA growing zones in Japan.
Salad Meal Prep
When it comes to meal prepping salads for the week, there are a few strategies to ensure freshness and convenience. Begin by washing and thoroughly drying your salad greens after harvest. I like to soak my greens for ten to fifteen minutes in cold water (I learned this trick from downshiftology). There tends to be some sand or insects that alway fall to the bottom of the soaking bowl. It’s always satisfying to see!
I like to use a salad spinner or wrap them up and shake them with in a clean kitchen towel to remove excess moisture, as wet greens can become soggy and mushy when stored.
Next, separate your ingredients and store them in airtight containers or a large, covered bowl. It’s a good idea to keep the salad greens separate from other ingredients like fruits or proteins to maintain their crispness.
If you are assembling individual meal prep containers, separate the greens from toppings and protein on top. I like to put one fold of paper towel at the bottom of a container to absorb water drops and keep the humidity stable.
Avocados or dressing should also be packed separately, then add them just before serving to avoid sogginess. If you are packing fresh avocado, keep the pit in or squeeze some lemon on top to avoid browning.
Store your prepared salads in the refrigerator, and they will stay fresh and ready to enjoy throughout the week. This method not only saves time but also ensures that you have healthy, homemade salads readily available whenever you need them.
And if you are like me, you might even find yourself staying consistent with your salad habit not only because it’s satisfying, but because the prepared food is better eaten than wasted.
I really hope my salad story reaches and inspires someone to create their own salad garden. Please drop a comment and let me know if you got any new ideas!
Take care, all!
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. (n.d.). Vegetables and Fruits. Retrieved from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/vegetables-and-fruits/
Rolls, B. J., Ello-Martin, J. A., & Tohill, B. C. (2004). What can intervention studies tell us about the relationship between fruit and vegetable consumption and weight management? Nutrition reviews, 62(1), 1-17.
Wang, X., Ouyang, Y., Liu, J., Zhu, M., Zhao, G., Bao, W., & Hu, F. B. (2014). Fruit and vegetable consumption and mortality from all causes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer: systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. Bmj, 349, g4490.
Slavin, J. L. (2013). Dietary fiber and body weight. Nutrition, 29(3), 411-418.
Popkin, B. M., Armstrong, L. E., Bray, G. M., Caballero, B., Frei, B., & Willett, W. C. (2005). A new proposed guidance system for beverage consumption in the United States. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 83(2), 529-542.
Aune, D., Giovannucci, E., Boffetta, P., Fadnes, L. T., Keum, N., Norat, T., … & Tonstad, S. (2017). Fruit and vegetable intake and the risk of cardiovascular disease, total cancer and all-cause mortality—a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies. International journal of epidemiology, 46(3), 1029-1056.
Stahl, W., & Sies, H. (2012). β-Carotene and other carotenoids in protection from sunlight. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 96(5), 1179S–84S. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.112.034819
A system of agricultural and social design principles that seeks to create sustainable and self-sufficient ecosystems by mimicking natural patterns and processes.
A protective layer of material (such as straw, leaves, or compost) applied to the soil surface around plants to conserve moisture, suppress weeds, and regulate soil temperature.
Flowers that are safe for consumption and often used to enhance the visual appeal and flavors of dishes, including salads. Examples include nasturtiums, pansies, and marigolds.
The practice of growing different plants together in close proximity to promote mutual benefits, such as pest control, nutrient sharing, or increased pollination.
Decayed plant or animal materials, such as compost or manure, added to soil to improve its fertility, structure, and water-holding capacity.
The process of planning and preparing meals in advance, often involving the assembly and storage of ingredients to make mealtime more convenient and efficient.