Hooray for salad! We’ve hit 100% self-sufficiency in salad greens for crew and courses at Milkwood Farm. And we’re not just talking leaves-of-things-that-are-edible-and-could-be-used-for-salad-at-a-pinch, we’re talking retail quality, beautiful, sweet, diverse beyond organic greens. We’re pretty stoked.
Michael has achieved this by being careful with his propagation techniques and with his choices in salad species. At Milkwood Farm we’re just having our last frosts of the season here at the end of October, which gives you an idea of the growing conditions. Not really salad friendly. But Michael has done it regardless, and without a polytunnel.
This spring we decided to move the majority of salad greens up to the kitchen garden, and away from the market garden where they were grown last year. This move was for a number of reasons, which have worked out well.
The first reason was proximity to the kitchen. While a bit of a no-brainer, this was a big step to give over the kitchen garden (previously our family’s domestic polyculture garden when we lived in the caravan which is now the kitchen) to intensive production. Up until now this kitchen garden has been chock-full of herbs, chives, silverbeet and flowers, with heritage tomatoes dotted about.
However, this kitchen doesn’t cater for just a small family anymore, so best face up to our actual needs. And our needs, these days, are heaps of organic salad greens, to keep everyone well fed (between 10 and 40 people a day, depending on what’s happening) without having to go to the supermarket to do it.
So Michael turfed out the majority of the plants, and in went intensive plantings of lettuce and rocket of various types. The chives are still there around the edges and the comfrey is resolutely growing up through, but the vast majority of these beds is now wall-to-wall salad.
The proximity advantage is two-fold. Intensive greens take a bit of looking after, and it’s very easy to do that if the beds are outside your door. This kitchen garden is placed between the kitchen, the crew-space and the classroom, so it’s in the center of things.
The second benefit of proximity is for picking. While a 250m walk down to the main market garden isn’t very far, when you’ve got 20 minutes till lunchtime for 30 people and you’ve realize you’re short on greens, you want them right there, if you can.
The second reason was the frost line. While the kitchen garden is not exempt from frosts (nowhere on our farm is – yet), it does a lot better than the creekflat, where the market garden is placed. And less frost means more growth sooner, which is what we needed to get up to 100% home-grown greens asap.
The third reason was shade. Yes, I did just speak of frost, but this spring we’re getting temperature differences of 30 degrees in 24 hours. So frost in the morning, then 30 degrees by lunchtime. That is a very big difference in daily temperature, especially for something as traditionally coddled as a lettuce.
The kitchen garden is shaded from about 1pm onward by a big eucalypt tree on its northwestern side. While the proximity of the eucalypt is not that great from a root invasion perspective (we’re not growing anything within it’s dripline anymore for this reason), its shade is very welcome.
The fourth reason was beauty. Because a series of full beds of varied lettuces and rocket, ringed by herbs, is a beautiful thing in the midday sun… and you have to love being where you are, or there aint much point to it all.
The taste of these greens is super sweet – not bitter at all. Which means we’re eating rather a large amount of them, because they’re so darn delicious.
Michael attributes the greens’ sweetness to good nutrition at the seedling stage, and the fact that we’ve been able to lavish attention on these plants, resulting in them not being stressed. Again, this sort of attention would have been harder to give, had these greens been down the market garden, where the conditions are not quite as favorable.
While I’ve never had a problem being self-sufficient in salad greens over summer on a domestic level, last year was our first season of community-scale growing and it was quite a shock to realize the volumes we needed to meet our catering needs.
Volume coupled with regularity of supply was a challenge for us on the community-scale of growing last year – we hit the spot with some crops, but not with others.
This year, we look better placed to be able to provide nearly all the vegetable inputs needed, and not have to eat so seasonally that the crew is close to revolt (feed 15 people bok choi kimchi for 15 meals in a row and see what happens, even if it is only a side dish).
Thanks to good mentors, growers and the ongoing upskilling happening here, we’re getting closer to being able to confidently say we can provide all our farm’s annual vegetable needs, and still have plenty to sell and distribute to our wider community.
Training for growers: we provide training for aspiring market gardeners at Milkwood Farm and also masterclasses at Allsun Farm, in addition to serious backyard veggies courses in Sydney for backyard growers.