homegrown salad greens
EVEN IN A cold climate, there can be salad nearly year-round, assuming you have a coldframe of some sort and also purchase a range of appropriate varieties of seeds for each season. Unfortunately, many gardeners only ever enjoy that first harvest of lettuce, in early summer from a spring planting, which then bolts (stretches up its flower stalk) and goes by in a bitter-tasting farewell.
They never even consider winter crops. A mere dozen lettuce seeds, sown every 10 days from late winter through late summer, the earliest ones indoors for set-out later, will guarantee a small household plenty of fresh, succulent salad greens early spring through late fall. Don’t plant 10 feet of row of lettuce at a time—3 or 4 feet at most is more like it, since lettuce doesn’t keep. And even with those 12 seeds, I like to mix it up a bit, alternating 6 each of two varieties at each planting, so I have a blend of colors, tastes and textures in every bowlful.
There are three basic categories of lettuces, the earliest being the looseleaf kind, which take only 45-60 days to mature. ‘Black-Seeded Simpson,’ at 45 days, is about the quickest of all, so don’t be without it. Another non-heading lettuce I always grow is ‘Oakleaf,’ with beautiful ruffled leaves shaped like its namesake’s. There are red forms now, like ‘Flame,’ or various improved versions of ‘Lollo Rossa,’ which is a nice contrast. Looseleaf lettuces are the best candidates for cut-and-come-again harvesting, which gives you up to four harvests from a planting, instead of a single one if you wait till maturity and pull the entire head. When the leaves reach 4-6 inches, simply cut them off with a sharp scissors, then water well and feed the planting with a dose of fish emulsion or seaweed solution to help it regrow.
The butterhead or Bibb lettuces mature next, at 60-75 days, and though they do form heads they are not so firm as the latest category, at 75-plus days, which embraces the Romaines and the crispheads (including the notorious ex-supermarket star, ‘Iceberg’). The original ‘Bibb’ lettuce, an old-fashioned lettuce also listed as ‘Limestone’ on restaurant menus, has the typical buttery texture of the former group, but ‘Buttercrunch’ is a more modern butterhead, with a bit more texture. There are red Bibbs as well, like ‘Yugoslavian Red,’ a welcome development.
The red trend in salad “greens” continues right through the last category, the slowpoke crispheads and Romaines. I have grown ‘Rouge d’Hiver,’ a cold-tolerant red Romaine, and even red crisphead.
Don’t cover lettuce seeds too deeply; press them into a shallow furrow created with a cultivator’s tines (or the point of a pencil), about 1/4 inch deep. Gently water, rather than blast, the area regularly so it stays moist—lettuces love moisture so they grow fast and tender. Those who have been frustrated by germination failure in the hot, dry days of summer may wish to keep right on sowing their lettuce indoors every 10 days instead, then moving transplants outside as they’re ready. Give them a bit of shade in midsummer by planting on the cooler side of a tomato row or inside the legs of the bean teepee, where it stays shadier and moister than in the open. Another germination trick: sow in the garden, mist the bed, then place a board or a piece of burlap over the row until the seeds begin to germinate.
Spacing of lettuce depends not only on the type you’re growing, but also on how you plan to harvest it. The cut-and-come-again approach means more plants per square foot; if you want to let a crisphead mature in place, give it most of a foot to itself. I like to let my lettuces grow to medium size then pull the head, roots and all, because they store so well with their roots dangling in a glass of water indoors on the kitchen counter, or in a bowl half-filled with water in the fridge. If I want a blend of many tastes and colors, in baby-leaf size, I sow in blocks, not rows, every 10 days and cut with scissors, then let the block regrow more young leaves.
Beyond true lettuces, the salad bowl can be filled at odd times of year or supplemented in the main season with super-hardy alternatives like mache, also known as corn salad, a very small plant that makes ground-hugging rosettes of leaves that are mild-tasting and soft-textured. Mache is so cold-resistant that sometimes grows all winter, during thaws, and I have sown it in fall and picked it during warmish spells right through the following spring.
Spinach also makes a good addition to salads, and because it likes cool weather and bolts in summer heat, I sow it in the fall, too, or in late winter during a thaw; the seeds will germinate as soon as conditions permit, and the first pickings will come a month or so earlier than the ones sown when the ground can be worked in spring, about St. Patrick’s Day. Beet greens are also good, particularly very red ones like ‘Bull’s Blood’ and ‘MacGregor’s Favorite.’ Pick them young.
Arugula is another must, and will gladly self-sow, as will most salad crops, if allowed to flower and set seed at the previous season’s end. I usually find a dozen or more tiny plants strewn around the garden and leave them to grow, since they will beat even my earliest sowing. Finally, I plant flatleaf parsley, the ‘Gigante’ Italian kind, and a perennial salad ingredient called sorrel (Rumex acetosa), with lemony-sour leaves. It also makes a wonderful soup.
In the heat of midsummer, even heat-tolerant lettuces appreciate a bit of shade, which in the jungle the garden is becoming is easier to find than a spot of sun at ground level. I plant lettuce seedlings inside pole-bean teepees, for example, and on the shadier side of tomatoes…remember, anywhere there’s a square foot open, you can have three or four more heads in progress.
Don’t hesitate to try a dozen different lettuces a season; a packet of each is too much, but will remain viable for as long as six years if kept cool and dry. Since lettuce seeds are small and relatively difficult to sow thinly, I have recently started to use pelletized seed—seeds coated with a harmless material so they look like small beads of candy you’d use to decorate a cake, and are easy to handle individually. Johnny’s has them, and so do other seed houses including Stokes, both for lettuces and other difficult seeds including carrots—perhaps the most challenging of all to sow.
Inevitably, with all those lettuce varieties, there will be a small number of seeds left in some packets, and rather than save a few of this and a half-dozen of that separately, I tap them into a small recycled mayonnaise or mustard jar along with “extra” arugula, other lettuces, beet green and spinach, and over the course of a season accumulate the stock of my own mesclun mix for next spring. You can buy pre-mixed seeds blended for spicy mescluns or colorful ones, but I like to make my own. I broadcast these in early spring in a large block in the garden (maybe two feet by two feet) and pluck whatever leaves of the mix look good at a given time for a spontaneous, ever-changing salad blend.