How to grow an easy salad garden at the cottage

Man plants herbs in garden planter Liam Mogan

Create your own low-work salad garden and eat the fruits of your labour all summer.

Kathleen Dewar loves the surprise, even though it happens every spring. As she crosses tasks off her list, including planting vegetables with her husband, Robert Harpur, she gets busy. She forgets. And one day, she is walking by the garden, and she is always surprised: “The carrots are coming up! It’s amazing. That first emergence of seed is just such a miracle.”

When the Harpurs retired to the family cottage near Carnarvon, Ont., they knew it had gardening potential. The cottage was part of a larger farm property that Robert’s grandfather bought, but it hadn’t been actively farmed for at least sixty years. The couple started by improving the 25-by-25-foot garden that was there, hauling in topsoil (which turned out to be mostly clay, Robert says, annoyed) and learning how to compost. (They’ve also since added another plot for potatoes that’s 10 by 25 feet.)

New cottage gardeners should start small, Robert says, with perhaps half a dozen vegetables. Or in Kathleen’s words, “Just plant a salad.” 

“You can start gardening in something as small as one pot,” Sara Drawehn says. She’s a member of the Muskoka chapter of the Master Gardeners of Ontario, a division of a North American organization of green thumbs who offer advice through clinics and social media. 

In typical Canadian Shield gardens, Drawehn recommends raised beds—sandbox-like wood frames built above ground level and filled with soil. Rob Kelly, who gardens along the Burnt River near Minden, Ont., grows all his vegetables in them. Where the soil is thin or poor, raised beds let you bring in fertile dirt and keep it. “On this riverbank,” says Rob, “anything we spread on top just washes away into the sandy soil.” 

Because the soil in raised beds warms faster in spring, seeds sprout earlier. Rob extends his growing season further by arching wire hoops inside the frames and tightly covering them with clear plastic, creating a temporary greenhouse. And although weeds still find purchase in raised beds, the solid sides block some wind-borne seeds and some crawling pests—and make it easier to attach pest-resistant fencing (see How to stop critters from eating your salad garden). And for the gardener, says Rob, there’s less bending and kneeling. 

One of the Harpurs’ raised beds is more like a large wagon, with two wheels so it can follow the sun all season. It’s near the kitchen and is mostly planted with herbs. “I do smoothies in the morning,” Kathleen says, “so I need fresh mint.”

Her spring garden surprises aren’t always joyful. “Sometimes the carrots aren’t there, and I wonder ‘where the heck did they go?’” Kathleen says. Undaunted, she and Robert just sow more seeds. Or they try something new. Different vegetables do well, or not, each year. But there’s always a harvest. “Grandmother Earth can feed her children,” she explains. “That’s the lesson.”

What to plant and why:

A garden for salad lovers has two harvests, says gardener Rob Kelly. Lettuce, radish, spinach, and other greens love cool spring weather. “I get edible pod peas in as soon as the ground has thawed,” he says, and he’s harvesting from the first week of July through early August. 

Arugula, bok choy, and various Asian greens also do well, says Master Gardener Sara Drawehn. Staggered planting—sowing seeds every two weeks or so in spring—will extend the early harvest as plants mature in stages.

Perennial vegetables—asparagus and rhubarb (yes, thinly sliced in salad for a tangy hit)—will be ready too in early spring. Rob’s enthusiastic about winter onions (also called Egyptian walking onions or tree onions), an unusual variety “my grandfather had and my mother kept going. Plant them in the fall, and you’ll have green onions from May to November.”

The second of his salad harvests starts with replanting lettuce in August to eat in October—and beyond, since it’s remarkably frost tolerant, says Rob. With some hardy herbs such as parsley or sage and perhaps the last of the fresh tomatoes, he always has a fresh, home-grown salad on the Thanksgiving table.

This article originally appeared in the Mar/Apr 2021 issue of Cottage Life.

Read more: How to create a beautiful, budget-friendly cottage garden

Featured Video