Salad greens are one of the easiest and most satisfying crops to grow. My go-to garden expert, farmer Gowan Batist, says that when you time your seeding and harvesting well, you can keep up a steady supply of fresh greens for several weeks or months, depending on your climate. Greens are also very scalable, whether you want to grow them in a bucket or box on your back deck, or a long bed in your garden. Advanced players can experiment with indoor gardening and shadecloth to grow greens when it’s too cold or too hot for them to survive out in the garden.
It’s a good idea to plant a mix of salad greens for variety. Batist favors a mix of various lettuces, mustards, spinach, and plants like kale and chard, which are very tender when young and can be readily eaten raw. She says mustards in particular can add some zest to make greens more interesting. Preblended salad green mixes are available at nurseries and seed stores, or you can make your own by buying an assortment of seeds and using a mixture each time you plant.
You may also want to consider unusual and heritage greens, she says. Batist enjoys working with colorful lettuces in shades like deep red (merlot or red oak leaf lettuce) or green and red blends (like speckled butter leaf and red fire), because they make plates much brighter.
The important thing to know about salad greens is that they prefer cool weather, Batist explains; they can’t tolerate the cold of winter, but they also do poorly in the heat of summer. They also require rich, well-drained soil. With these requirements in mind, you should be able to find a spot in the garden where they will do well, and if you want, you can grow them in easily-moved containers so you can move them as the seasons change to keep them producing.
Start sowing seeds indoors around a month before the last frost, so you will have greens ready to transplant as the weather starts to turn. You can also direct sow where you plan to grow, but you won’t be able to sow seeds as early because the weather will be too cold. Every five to eight days, sow another batch of seeds, so you’ll have continuous waves of maturing plants, ensuring a steady supply of salad greens. Batist recommends planting in blocks to make it easier to keep track.
As your salad greens start to mature, you can begin harvesting. Trim off the larger outer leaves, leaving the rest of the plant to keep growing. When the leaves start to get large and woody or the plant bolts, meaning it starts putting up a flowering shoot, remove it and replace it with a new seedling or more seeds. Keep the soil moist, but not wet.
Keep an eye out for snails and slugs, and if they start appearing, you can put out a dish of beer (yes, really!) to keep them off your precious greens. If you sow well apart and thin as seedlings mature, or transplant your greens with healthy spaces between them, you shouldn’t have problems with mold, mildew, and garden pests. If you do notice these issues, space your plants more widely, consider scaling back on watering, and make sure to wash your hands and tools when you move to a different bed in the garden to avoid spreading them. Keep infected plants out of the compost as well.
If you want to try growing salad greens during more months than the regular growing season, you can use a greenhouse for sprouting seedlings in the cold winter months, and a shade house or your house for sprouting in the summer. For instance, gardeners in cold climates like Minneapolis could hire Minneapolis carpenters to build cold frames for the winter months to extend their growing season. Salad greens do well in greenhouses and hoop houses in the winter, and you can try growing them in a window or on an enclosed deck if you don’t have gardening space. If you want to try growing them outdoors, cover them in a warm garden cloth to protect them from the worst of the weather.
In the summer, salad greens will need a protective cover of shadecloth to keep them out of the heat, even if you use heat-tolerant varieties (red romaine, oakleaf, and Simpson black seeded, for example) designed for gardening in warmer climes. You can also try growing them in a shadier area of the garden where it will stay cool and moist enough to support them. Alternatively, grow them indoors in a cool room where there’s still plenty of indirect sunlight. Harvest as you normally would, and keep your planting rotation up so there will always be a next generation of plants ready to grow.