Growing Salad Greens GuideGrowing Salad Greens Guide
Anyone with a window box, patio urn, or strip of soil by the back door can grow an appealing salad mix. Salad greens are among the most satisfying vegetables to grow since they usually pop out of the ground less than a week after the seeds are sown and are ready to harvest in four to six weeks.
Focus on the soil
“Prepare your soil with plenty of organic matter,” says Dale Rhoads, a market gardener in Indiana. He recommends working composted chicken manure into the soil in spring because it slowly releases nutrients to the plants throughout the rest of the season. He also urges gardeners to weed often, because greens perform better if they don’t have to compete for nutrients.
Start seeds early
Get a head start on early greens such as spring lettuce by starting them in flats a growing them under lights until they are ready to transplant into the garden, says Organic Gardening‘s test garden manager, Pam Ruch.
Direct-seed greens in rows or broadcast a random smattering of seeds over the soil in early spring. Cover the seeds with a very light layer of soil and water them gently.
The trick to continuous salad-green production is succession planting–sowing a new crop every two or three weeks.
The enthusiasm for “baby” vegetables tempts many growers to harvest their greens before they reach their flavor potential. Flavors develop in salad greens as they grow.
Grow a piquant blend of greens with these plants
Plant a Salad Garden
A salad garden is simple and satisfying to grow, whether you have a large area or just a few containers. I like to grow both mixed baby lettuces and full heads of lettuce. All lettuce grows best in cool weather, from spring through early summer, and in early fall in most places. Here’s how to grow your gourmet-quality greens.
Easy-to-grow leaf lettuce
“Give me a honeymoon salad,” a corn-fed neighbor of mine would always say (despite groans from fellow diners). “Lettuce alone.”
Fancier salad fixings come and go, but lettuce remains a staple. And while all types are fairly easy to grow, romaine, Boston, and iceberg take time to fold into nice full heads. Leaf lettuce, by contrast, is always the first to be ready, many weeks before heading varieties. Thriving in cool weather, it’s planted as the ground warms in mid-April, and grows rapidly. With luck (i.e., cooperative weather), you’ll be picking leaves by the May long weekend—about a month from seed to the salad bowl.
You just need to provide decent soil in full sun or dappled shade, a couple of centimeters of compost, a quick dig to stir and mix, and a leveling rake—then you’re ready to sow. Leaf lettuce can be grown in either crowded rows or in a nicely spaced one (which may start as a crowded row). For the first method, sow seeds six to 12 millimeters deep and about three centimeters apart, either in one long row or (better) a few shorter ones running parallel to each other, 15 centimeters apart, across a bed. Left unthinned, plants will produce lots of small leaves that can be plucked by hand or cut with scissors over a month or more, as new leaves sprout from plant centers. Both age and heat push lettuce plants to seed—signifying the end of the harvest—so it’s a good idea to sow a couple of new rows every 10 days for a fresh supply.
Given room—that is, thinned to 20 centimeters apart—leaf lettuce responds beautifully, expanding into a full cone-shaped bunch. For steady, succulent growth, water lettuce thoroughly every three or four days. Around week three, feed with diluted fish emulsion, showering the patch afterward to wash off any residue.
Disease in the lettuce patch is rare—I haven’t seen any in a mine in three decades. But slugs and earwigs may show up. While earwigs are more of a nuisance than a threat, lodging in the plant’s center and giving you a nasty surprise at the sink, slugs are slow, steady eaters that can do damage to plants, especially in wet weather. Early plantings often escape, as slugs are few and small at that time; later on, a close collar of sharp, gritty sand or ground eggshells should deter them. Beer works, too: small containers of (cheap) brew sunk to their rims in the soil attract and drown slugs.
While not as crisp as romaine or as buttery soft as Boston, leaf lettuce is as tasty as any other lettuce, easier to grow than most, and always first to the table.
How to get an early crop and cultivars
How to enjoy an earlier crop
Start leaf lettuce seeds indoors a month before your region’s first frost-free date, sowing two or three seeds in a six- to the eight-centimeter pot, thinning to one seedling; a dozen plants take up little room in a sunny window or under lights. After a couple of days of gradual exposure to outdoor conditions, set three-week-old seedlings in the garden 20 centimeters apart. For a fancier patch (a kind of marbling effect), we always plant alternating seedlings of red and green leaf lettuces. A sheet of floating row cover provides extra warmth for uninterrupted growth. As plants grow, you can pluck the outer leaves, a few from each plant every other day or so for an early harvest; full-size bunches will still be produced.
Leaf lettuce cultivars to try
While all leaf lettuces have a loose, open habit, varieties vary dramatically in color and leaf shape—experimenting is part of the fun. To ensure you’re planting leaf, rather than the head, lettuce, choose from these types: deer tongue, Grand Rapids, Lolla Rossa, oakleaf, Simpson, and salad bowl.
‘Black-Seeded Simpson’, for instance (a popular older variety whose baby leaves are ready in 40 days, maturing in 60), has abundant pale green, lightly crumpled, juicy leaves; these large, upright plants grow just about anywhere and tolerate heat, drought, and frost.
In contrast, Lollo Rossa types are tightly curled, very frilly, and attractive on the plate; examples include the light green ‘Lollo Bionda’ and deep red ‘Darkness’.
Seldom seen in markets, oakleaf and deer tongue lettuces are plainer and flatter, growing into low-spreading rosettes; heirloom choices include ‘Royal Oakleaf’ (light green), ‘Red Deer Tongue’ and ‘Amish Deer Tongue’, with a timing (as with almost all leaf lettuces) of under a month for baby leaves and around 55 days for full plants.
The long, indented leaves of the French ‘Brunia’ are olive green tipped with bronze-red. An All-America Selection winner in 1952, ‘Salad Bowl’ is soft-textured and medium green; and ‘Red Salad Bowl’ is just that.
Widely available ‘Grand Rapids’, ‘Simpson Elite’ (both green) and ‘Red Sails’ are the kinds of leaf lettuces you see at the supermarket—but better a few steps from garden to kitchen than the long distance in a truck.
5 Steps to Baby Lettuce
The quick way to grow tender baby leaves of four or five different types of lettuces is to use a mesclun mixture. (Mesclun is a term used to describe a seasonal mixture of greens that is sown, grown, and cut together.) I like to use a mesclun that is made up of different lettuces.
1. Start by preparing a 2- to 3-square-foot area. Use a garden fork to turn the soil and break up any clumps, so the soil has an even, fine texture. Or, fill a container, such as a half-barrel or 15- to the 18-inch-wide planter, with good-quality potting soil. Next, moisten the soil.
2. Pour the mesclun seeds into your palm, close your hand, and carefully shake out the seeds over the bed. Try to leave about a half-inch between the seeds. (Practice sowing over paper towels to get the knack of even spacing.) Sift fine soil or potting mix lightly over the seeds, covering them with a layer about a quarter-inch deep. Then sprinkle the newly sown bed with water, wetting the soil thoroughly but gently.
3. Keep the seedbed evenly moist until germination occurs, in about one to two weeks (seedlings may come up at different rates).
4. When your baby lettuces are 4 to 5 inches tall (after 35 to 45 days), you can begin to enjoy them in salads. Be sure not to let the plants get too large. Using sharp scissors, shear off leaves at 1 to 2 inches above the soil level. Cut only as much as you need. Gently rinse and dry the greens, and make a salad as soon as possible; baby leaves do not keep long in the refrigerator.
5. After you harvest, water the bed well, and feed lightly with liquid fish fertilizer. The cut lettuce crowns will regrow for another harvest or two.
Seed expert Renee Shepherd owns Renee’s Garden, whose packets of seeds are sold in garden centers nationwide.
Table of Contents
- 1 Growing Salad Greens Guide
- 1.1 Focus on the soil
- 1.2 Sow outdoors
- 1.3 Plant often
- 1.4 Water consistently
- 1.5 Maximize flavor
- 1.6 Grow a piquant blend of greens with these plants
- 1.7 Plant a Salad Garden
- 1.8 Easy-to-grow leaf lettuce
- 1.9 How to get an early crop and cultivars
- 1.10 5 Steps to Baby Lettuce