Of all the vegetables that you could raise yourself, perhaps none are easier and more rewarding—especially for a dabbler or total beginner—than leafy salad greens.
Depending on the types you grow, you can enjoy a variety of delicious flavors with different colors and leaf shapes. Salad greens offer a lot of nutritional value (fiber, vitamins A and C, potassium and other nutrients) with minimal calories. And they are at their best when you grow and harvest them yourself—there’s no need to pay a premium for them in the grocery store or at a farmers’ market! Tips for success…
Keep a cool head. Leafy greens are best grown in spring or fall, the shoulder seasons when both the air and the soil are cooler. Raising greens in the heat of summer will cause them to “bolt”—as the days get longer and warmer, the greens will send up stalks with small flowers (usually white or yellow). These insignificant little flowers soon go to seed, and the leaf harvest becomes tough and bitter-tasting. You will get scraggly “volunteers” (what experienced gardeners call “surprise plants”) around your garden for the rest of the season.
You may be able to forestall bolting by growing your greens in partial shade (from a tree, fence, nearby plants or garden shade cloth) and/or by applying a few inches of mulch around them to keep the soil cooler.
Better: Plant something that prospers in summer heat, such as tomatoes and basil. Once those are harvested, it will be just about time to put in your fall greens crop.
Variety is the spice. There literally are dozens of enticing lettuces. Instead of ordinary red leaf or romaine, try: Black Seeded Simpson (very flavorful and sweet, with curly, wavy leaves)…Freckles or Flashy Trout Back (beautiful light green leaves speckled with crimson)…green or red oak leaf types…or butterhead. One butterhead is whimsically named Tom Thumb, and it produces miniature heads that are perfect for individual salads.
You also can grow other types of greens. Spinach is always popular, and you can try different variations. Also consider more offbeat choices: Mizuna (highly dissected leaves with a spicy flavor)…mustard (different kinds, all strong-flavored)…red radicchio (crunchy and sharp)…cress (spicy or mellow, depending on the variety)…mâche (nutty flavor, buttery texture)…arugula (peppery). And there are a few different kinds of tasty cultivated dandelion varieties meant for salads—try Catalogna or Italiko Red.
Sow for success. Greens grow very quickly and easily from seed. You may start them indoors early or buy seedlings, but they can slump after transplanting and, besides, direct-sowing is quite easy.
Sow seeds out in your garden, in organically rich soil…or even in a planter box on a deck or patio…or in a large pot or window box. Sprinkle the seeds carefully and sparingly (generally all these plants come from quite tiny seeds). Some seed packets contain hundreds of seeds, and you may not have the space or inclination to use them all at once.
Press the seeds into place so you are sure they are in contact with the soil, and water gently with a watering wand attached to your hose set to fine spray or a fine-spray watering can. Be careful not to dislodge the seeds before they can start to grow. Keep them lightly but consistently watered as they grow—never flood them. Often you can begin harvesting in a matter of weeks.
Thin…or else! What inevitably happens is a thick little forest of greens sprouts a week or two after sowing. If you don’t intervene, they’re going to crowd one another and none of them will get very big as they jostle for space.
Thin your baby crop so there’s sufficient space for the greens to develop fully. Heed the specific spacing advice on the seed packet (for big lettuces, it could be as much as 10 to 12 inches between plants…for small greens, only a few inches). Use your fingers or small scissors, and be gentle and careful so that the survivors remain rooted in place and will be able to continue to grow.
Suggestion: Thin the crop right before you want to prepare a salad or dress burgers. True, the leaves will be small at this point, but why waste them? They’re just as delicious and nutritious as the ones left behind to grow to maturity.
Prevent pests. The main competition for salad greens is slugs. An easy, organic way to deter them is to sprinkle diatomaceous earth (available wherever gardening supplies are sold) around your plants once they sprout. It has a sharp texture that slugs don’t want to crawl across. Replenish after a rain.
Deer and rabbits may nibble. They can be kept out with barriers such as chicken wire or shade cloth, bird netting or small hoop tunnels. All these products can be purchased where gardening supplies are sold.
Sometimes tiny insect pests called aphids suck the juices out of the leaves, causing distorted growth. Dislodge these bugs with a spray of the hose, or just rinse them off when harvesting. A bigger infestation can be deterred by applying insecticidal soap (again, you can get this at a garden supplier).
Cutting remarks. Optimum picking time for leafy greens varies depending on what you are growing, the weather and your taste. You will learn by trial and error.
Lettuces form dense heads. If you want to keep the crop going, carefully cut or pinch off the outer leaves. These older leaves should be eaten first, and removing them allows the younger, inner leaves to continue to develop.
Other types of greens do not form heads, so you can harvest the leaves any time you wish. Younger leaves tend to have milder flavor, which you may or may not prefer.
Morning is best for cutting, because the leaves will be crisper (most hydrated) then. Harvesting tip: Take a bowl or bucket of water with you, and put everything right in to keep them plump. Rinse them off a bit.
Care after harvest. Greens are easily raised organically, which means you don’t have to fret about washing them thoroughly after picking. Just discard faded, yellowed and damaged leaves, and shake them a bit to dislodge dirt or hidden bugs. Resist washing tender greens in the kitchen sink until you’re just about to eat them—this keeps them freshest.
For best texture, flavor, and nutrition: Eat garden-fresh greens within a day of picking. If you must store them longer, put them in a plastic bag in your refrigerator’s vegetable crisper drawer.