By RICHARD SHIELL, Contributing columnist
Making salad is a great way to incorporate garden produce and herbs. Sliced fruit, nasturtium petals, a sprinkling of finely chopped rosemary, mint or lavender all liven up the first course. Softer-leaved herbs like tarragon and cilantro can be pulled off their stems and added directly.
Two things make or break a salad; freshness and variety, meaning variety of textures, tastes and colors. One limp head of lettuce torn and dressed looks unattractive and gets boring in one bite. A good dressing can help, but without the crunch of freshness and a diversity of other ingredients -- be they brittle, soft, firm or even resilient -- the palette isn't stimulated.
Some salads are like poorly made clothing; they look bad and get worse when we try them. This is why those trendy bagged salad blends do well in markets, despite the cost per ounce. They are fresh and combine colors, textures and flavors of several species. They look good, and are very convenient.
There's so much more to salad
than iceberg lettuce and watery cucumbers. Locally grown greens are dependably healthier and more flavorful. The bumpy so-called "pickling" cucumbers are tastier, and don't have much bitterness in their skin, so peeling is optional.
Kale, the ruffled-leaved relative of cabbage, makes a great resilient feature when used in moderation. Chewier and more nutritious than most greens, it works particularly well as a foil for the sweetness of peach or mango. Planted either after frost in early spring, or after peak heat in late summer, kale is ornamental and one of the easiest vegetables to grow in a sunny spot.
Croutons are pretty iffy -- only flavorful ones really work. A shattering bit of overcooked white bread flecked with dry parsley isn't my idea of a great ingredient. Dry roasted sunflower seeds or chopped almonds cost more, and are well worthwhile. To make great croutons choose bakery bread cut into bite-sized rectangles, seasoned with herb-flavored oils or sharp cheese, and toasted on a cookie sheet in the oven for about 10 minutes at 375 degrees.
Of course, not everyone appreciates salad. As a hobbit in a recent movie remarked, "I don't like green food." Perhaps if that character had not received a whole leaf of kale the experience would have been less intimidating.
Red spider mites
Mother Nature has ways of communicating with us. For instance, if a plant is left too dusty, or inadequately lit, or dry, or all three, she sends along itty bitty sap-sucking pests called red spider mites. They are not insects, and easily resist most insecticides. Seen at magnification they indeed have eight legs, not six. They spin webs, covering the foliage in an airy mummy-wrap along which they climb and send out their offspring.
Red spider mites appear nearly anywhere because their young travel on the breeze. Microscopically tiny and bristly, they fly like bits of dandelion fluff. When they locate some dry foliage in still air, with good warmth but not much hot sunshine, they can get established. Too much water, sun, or wind makes a site unsuitable for them.
Why nature would include a universally present pest of these characteristics makes a certain sense; they clear out plants in the understory that aren't well-adapted, such as in the shade of larger plants, or the north side of boulders or hillsides. Rather than allow a crowded understory of weak plants, spider mites open up the space between the foliage canopy and the ground. The effect of a heavy infestation is to drop foliage. They serve as a sort of maintenance crew, defoliating smaller plants growing in the wrong place.
Miticides are strong poisons
There are poisons available for mites, but simply spraying them with water tells them to leave. Add a wetting agent like liquid soap, or an insecticidal soap from a garden supply store, and some will die and the rest will depart. Miticides are strong poisons, and really not merited in most residential settings.
Some houseplants are prone to spider mite infestations, particularly diffenbachia or Chinese evergreen. Move the plant to the patio and mist daily with slightly soapy water, until the infestation ends. During the dry months spider mites are most active, so those houseplants benefit from regular misting when it's hot outside.
Garden plants with spider mite can be sprayed, both from above and below, with a pump sprayer every few days for a couple of weeks, using about a tablespoon of liquid castile soap in a gallon of water. Quicker results can be had with lightweight horticultural oil or Neem (a tree oil) that smothers tiny animals.
To check for the presence of spider mites hold a three-by-five card or white paper under a leaf and flick the plant to knock off any loosely-adhering eight-leggers. They show up well against a white background.
For spider mites to kill a plant requires neglect, or really awful placement (an inhospitable environment). It's not so much a pest problem as a clear message to grow something else there, or give better care.
One plant that always, always, gets spider mites indoors is miniature rose bushes. Sure they are sold in little pots wrapped in colored foil, but roses are not houseplants, period. If you want spider mites try keeping a rose bush indoors for more than a few weeks.