Growing Lettuce and Great Salad Greens

If you've never had one, a fresh salad straight from the garden is a delight. Salad greens are easy and quick to grow and take up little space, making them a perfect addition to any garden and an excellent beginning gardening project for children.

Types of Greens

Great salad greens include more than iceberg or head lettuce. In fact, any other type of greens will give you more taste and nutrition and are easier for home gardeners to grow. A mixture of greens including lettuces is often called a mesclun mix. You can buy pre-mixed mesclun greens or mix your own with seeds from things you like.

  • Leaf lettuce. The easiest of all greens to grow is leaf lettuce. Leaf lettuce grows as single leaves on a stem and does not curl into a head. It comes in various shades of green and red. Some varieties of leaf lettuce have flat leaves, but there are also frilly leaved and lobed-leaf varieties. Leaf lettuce can be planted outside a month before the last frost is expected. It will be ready to harvest in as little as a month. Leaf lettuce is much better for you than head lettuce, but the taste is a little different.
  • Butterhead lettuce. Butterhead lettuce has leaves curled into loose heads. The individual leaves are somewhat thicker than leaf lettuce. They can be solid green or tinged with red. The flavor is mild and crisp.
  • Romaine. Romaine or cos lettuce has leaves that grow upright, with a heavier rib to each leaf. The leaves in the center of the lettuce clump blanch to a creamy yellow. They are excellent for Caesar salad.
  • Iceberg. Head lettuce or iceberg lettuce makes round heads of pale green and yellow with a very mild taste. It is the lettuce most familiar to people but the hardest lettuce for home gardeners to grow. It is low in nutrition compared to other greens. Head lettuce needs a long season of cool days to make mild-flavored heads.
  • Spinach. Spinach is another easy-to-grow green for salads. There are several types of spinach. The oriental types have arrow-shaped leaves. Conventional spinach comes in flat-leaf and savoy varieties. Savoy leaves are deeply quilted or crinkled. New Zealand Spinach is not true spinach, but it is very close in taste and it grows better in warm periods and southern zones.
  • Beet greens. Both beets and turnips have greens that are very tasty in salad. You can use whole baby plants you have thinned from the rows or pinch off leaves from plants you intend to eat the roots of later. There are varieties of beets and turnips that are grown primarily for the leaves that don't form large roots.
  • Endive. Escarole and endive have leaves similar to lettuce but thicker. The taste is a little stronger. Escarole tolerates both heat and cold. Mustard comes in plain- and frilly leaved varieties. Kale is sometimes used in salad and is an excellent fall crop. It comes in curly and plain-leaf varieties, some quite decorative.

Other greens include cress, chicory, arugula, purslane, pak choi, orach and sorrel.

Growing Greens

Most salad greens like to grow in the cooler times of the year and benefit from early spring or fall planting. They tolerate frost quite well. Full sun is best in spring and fall, but in the heat of summer, an area that is shaded in the middle of the day would be ideal.

Most greens should be sown directly where you want them to grow. Firmly press lettuce seed down on the soil but don't cover it, as it needs light to germinate. Cover the seed of other greens lightly. Keep your greens moist until they germinate and keep them well-watered while growing.

You may want to start the seeds of head lettuce inside and transfer plants outside. You can also use a large container inside to start an early crop of greens if you have a cool spot and a sunny window. You can have fresh salad before everyone else this way.

Greens should be sown in small quantities at three-week intervals so you don't have too much to harvest at a time. They don't take long to grow, so they can be sown early where you will plant warm-weather crops later. They can also be sown between slow-growing crops.

Greens appreciate nitrogen fertilizers. A fertilizer for grass with high nitrogen content but no weed killers will really give them a boost. You can also use a garden fertilizer at planting.

Harvesting Greens

Pick the leaves of all greens when they are small and sweet. As they get older, they get tougher and bitter. Keep the plants from going to seed, as this tends to make the greens taste bitter also. If you see the plant putting out a long, narrow stalk, it is a flower stalk and it should be snapped off.

Head, romaine and butterhead lettuces are usually harvested as whole plants. You can cut or pick leaves off leaf lettuce, spinach, kale, turnips, beets, mustard and escarole and the plants will keep producing more leaves. If you want the roots of turnips and beets to develop, then only harvest a few leaves from each plant.


Flea beetles, tiny black bugs that eat holes in the leaves and end up in your salad, are often a problem in plantings of greens. The good news is that greens don't need pollination to produce a crop, so they can be covered to keep out bugs. Use a lightweight row cover and make sure it is well-anchored at the ground.

Slugs and snails can also be a problem in plantings of greens. You can cover the soil around the plants with a layer of diatomaceous earth or sand, which often helps. Raised beds or containers will also help. Row covers don't keep out slugs and snails very well.

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