Early this spring while the snow was still melting, I noticed how the water pooled in a low spot in my lawn. A large puddle formed that thawed to a thick slushy consistency during the day and froze into a chunky icy mess each night. One night while walking to the garage, I slipped and had a close call with the ground, and it was right about then that my determination grew some roots. I decided that as soon as the thaw was over and the ground was workable, I’d set out to reshape the land in my backyard to accommodate and work with the available melt and rainwater.
Folks all around are digging rain gardens these days. Not only can we use rain-gardens to filter the water run-off from our properties, but when we use native plants in our rain-gardens we can create bird and butterfly habitat in our own back yards. As I sat inside the warm house rubbing my bruised knee and plotting against that slippery back yard mess, the thought occurred to me that if I was going to go to the trouble of making a rain-garden habitat for the birds in my back yard, I might as well go ahead and make some habitat for my family and myself as well. After all food plants tend to require a lot of water, and so I thought why not feed two birds with one hand and stock a rain-garden with my favorite edible plants. Seeing this garden take shape in my minds eye, suddenly I realized what it was I was about to create.
The salad bowl garden slices and dices a few basic gardening concepts and tosses these together with some spicy gardening techniques to create the yummiest garden you’ve ever grown. Rainwater conservation, habitat creation, and food production are a few of the key ingredients for any earth friendly yard. When these concepts are combined with the use of seed balls, living mulch, and plenty of compost, the salad bowl garden begins to take shape.
In my yard choosing the right place for the salad bowl garden was the easy job, on one end of the yard, the pooling water showed me a natural low spot, and on the other end of the yard, a drain spout comes down off my roof and spills storm water out on the lawn. With the help of some dedicated friends, we first removed the sod, we then simply dug out the low spot a little further and drove a trench through the earth from the low spot to the drain spout. As we dug away creating a low trench through the yard, all the excavated soil was place along the sides of the trench thus creating a swale with tall, sloped sides. We excavated the low areas a little deeper then they’d need to be so that we could layer six inches of compost over the whole space to create a rapidly draining and fast growing garden.
Once we shaped our salad bowl, it was time to start planting food, and habitat. Seed balls made of clay and compost and impregnated with vegetable seeds, combined with, some favorite native perennials, potatoes, asparagus roots, some lettuce greens plugs and herb starts made the planting menu for the afternoon. We planted more then enough plants to rapidly fill the space in with the idea in mind that the more we packed into the garden, the sooner we would be able to harvest. This is the garden technique that I call “living mulch”. I find that my gardens grow much more quickly if I get enough plants in the ground to cover the earth and quickly shade the garden soils. Just like any forest, prairie, or wet-land, the earth should be completely covered with plants in order to retain the most moisture possible and quickly penetrate the ground with roots from a wide variety of plants that will nourish and support each others growth.
Experience in the salad bowl garden leaves me able to attest that cabbage, collards, and kale grow much more quickly in the lowest most moisture rich parts of the garden, but if you ask the birds and butterflies, I’d bet they’d tell you how fast the Blue Indigo and Butterfly Weed grow in those low spots as well. I’ve already seen great results in this garden from combining native perennial plants with my food crop plants. The native perennials drive roots down that pull moisture up from below the surface to help feed and nourish the food crop plants growing around them. At the same time the shallow rooted food crops grab up the available surface moisture and help pull it into the ground to feed the deeper-rooted perennials. This is a win-win situation if ever there was, and an easy earth friendly way to increase your food yields at home.
In the three months since planting, this garden has yielded 10 pounds of potatoes, 5 large heads of cabbage, beautiful bunches of broccoli and cauliflower, and more lettuce, spinach, kale, and collard greens then I can shake a crouton at. We’ve also been using thyme, cilantro, and rosemary from this bountiful salad bowl, and there’s more to come with tomatoes, onions, peppers, artichoke, and kohlrabi yet to ripen. As if that weren’t enough reward, we get to watch butterflies and birds already making a happy home where unloving lawn grass once grew. My neighbors probably think I’m nuts, but I just love standing out in the rain to watch the water trickle down the drainpipe and into the new garden.