I'm sure you're familiar with fast food—what member of the civilized world is not?—but have you heard about slow food?

No, that's not a term to describe your last disastrous restaurant meal. It's a movement designed to encourage "the enjoyment of foods that are local, seasonal and sustainably grown. " According to Slow Food® USA's Web site, "We reconnect Americans with the people, traditions, plants, animals, fertile soils and waters that produce our food."

One way to do this is to visit your local farmer's market for fruits and veggies. If you've never done this, find out when and where your market is open and take yourself on a little shopping adventure one morning. (Technically, you could go in the afternoon, but you'll find the best selection in the morning.) Often you'll get to talk to the people who actually grew the food, try samples of various produce, and get ideas for what to do with that unfamiliar edible. It's fun, educational, and a great photo op.

On the other hand, the best, cheapest, coolest way to enjoy locally grown produce is to grow your own. You can't get much more local than that! Now don't panic: I'm not proposing a humongous vegetable garden like the one Granny used to tend. (Although, if you have the space and you're that energetic, knock yourself out. And feel free to send any extra zucchini my way.) What I had in mind, especially for newbie gardeners, is something a little smaller ... something you can do on your patio, balcony, or sunny window. What I'm thinking is this: you can grow your own salad.

I've actually done this myself, so I know it can be done—and with very little effort. All you need is seeds, a container, sunshine, and water. Let's look at them one at a time:

Seeds

Did you know you can actually buy salad mix seeds? I didn't until I visited an old-timey feed store in my hometown and found it on the rack. You can also find them online and most places seeds are sold. For my garden I went with an Italian mix for one container and spinach for the other. (Baby spinach with dried cranberries, goat cheese, candied pecans and balsamic vinaigrette makes a salad to die for.) A standard packet of seeds will fill a multitude of containers for less than the cost of one salad at your neighborhood drive-through and much less than a dinner salad at a restaurant. You might consider finding a ‘salad buddy' to share your seeds—no point letting them go to waste, right?

Container

Almost anything that will hold dirt and water will do. I had several spare plastic tubs on hand, so I poked holes in the bottom and used them. Basic flowerpots, an old wheelbarrow (I grow herbs in mine), cute colorful buckets, galvanized tubs—use your imagination! It's best if whatever you choose has holes in the bottom for drainage, which means you may need to put a saucer or something underneath it to avoid accidental flooding.  In the case of my tubs, I grabbed a big nail and used a hammer to pierce through the bottom of the tub, then set the hole-y tub inside another one.

Sunlight

Obviously, God will have to provide this part. Your job is to locate your containers in a spot that gets sun most of the day. Or, if that's not possible, a bright light shining on your little garden 12 hours a day will do. If you really get into the whole indoor gardening thing, special grow lights are available, but they can run into money.

Water

No gourmet H2O required, thank you, basic tap water will do nicely. If you want to conserve water, stick a pitcher in your shower to catch excess while the water is warming up, place pans or buckets outside when it rains, or salvage the water used to cook vegetables.

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Fill your container with potting soil, leaving about an inch between the top of the soil and the top of the container so you can water your plants without making a mess. Plant your seeds according to the directions on the package; it's important they be at the right depth. Add enough water to make the soil moist, but don't drown to poor little things. Then place your container in its sunny spot and wait.

It won't take long before your plants will appear. Keep watering as needed, apply an organic fertilizer to encourage them to greater heights, and say nice things to them. (Seriously—I saw it on Mythbusters, that whole talking to the plants thing works!) You might need to thin them—i.e. sacrifice a few seedlings for the greater good of the garden by pulling them out to provide breathing room for the rest.

When they get to be about as long as your finger (any finger), use scissors to cut the outer leaves almost at the soil. Wash, dry, and enjoy! You should be able to harvest your crops several times during the season, but eventually they'll start to taste bitter. If you have leftover seeds, try pulling out the old plants and planting another crop. Depending on the season and your location, you might well get another round.

Once you've mastered the leafy parts—or simultaneously, if you prefer—you can try growing tomatoes, peppers (both do well in pots), and other edibles. Perhaps a windowsill herb garden? There's no need to start herbs from seeds, by the way. You can pick up seedlings from a nursery for less than the cost of a package of fresh herbs in the grocery store. I've been known to buy herbs from the nursery when I had a recipe that called for a tablespoon or so, partly to save money and partly because the nursery is closer to my home than the grocery store.

Dinner is Served

Finally, you'll probably want to put a little something on that salad. Might I suggest a vinaigrette? There are many delicious bottled varieties available, but as long as you're growing your own salad you might as well finish with a home-made dressing.
Take any vinegar you like—not that white smelly stuff you use to dye Easter eggs, though, go for a flavored version like balsamic, blueberry, champagne, or some such. And here's the trick: whisk the vinegar until frothy. Then slowly add olive oil (pour in a thin stream) while stirring, until the two become one combined dressing. Add salt and pepper to taste, maybe even a few squeezes of fresh lemon or lime juice or a spoonful of Dijon mustard. Taste as you go and stop when you like the combination of flavors. Then toss with your home-grown salad and enjoy the fruits—that is, the vegetables—of your labor.

Bon appetit!

 
Susan Ellingburg is a natural-born Texan who sings at every opportunity, reads as much as possible, and cherishes every day she gets to spend with friends.  She's a serious foodie and not-so-serious gardener who is determined not to let being single stand in the way of living an amazing life.  Read Susan's blog at TastingGod.wordpress.com.

**This column first published on March 11, 2010.