Photo courtesy of Flickr user randomduck via CC license
One of my co-workers recently asked me about growing salad greens, because her daughter loves interesting salads and wants to start growing her own food (yay!). So I started thinking about tips for novice lettuce growers and decided to summarize my advice here. Salad greens are a great crop for beginning gardeners, because good salad greens are expensive to buy but easy to grow. All you need is a little space (even a wide pot or two) and a somewhat sunny spot. Most US gardeners should start planting lettuce in late winter or early spring (depending on your climate), but here in SoCal (and other warm/mild climates), you can start lettuce seed now for a fall and winter crop. For those of you who don't live here in the land of movie stars and swimming pools, keep in mind that most lettuce can take a light frost, but a hard freeze will be the end of your crop. OK, enough preamble--let's get this salad started! You can start lettuce from seed or buy plants at the nursery, but starting from seed is cheaper and will give you more variety, especially if you buy a packet of mixed seed, usually called mesclun. Note for newbies: What the heck is mesclun? Glad you asked! According to that great gardening oracle, Wikipedia, mesclun "is a salad mix of assorted small, young salad leaves which originated in Provence, France." Hmph. That's what Wikipedia thinks. My mesclun originated in my backyard. Anyway, mesclun mix is a great choice for beginning salad gardeners. One packet of seed will give you a bunch of different kinds of greens (and reds and purples), and you can grow it in very little space--even in containers. You can pick up packs of mesclun seed at most garden centers, or you can order from Amazon:
Just plant according to the directions on the seed packet, water well, and keep the ground evenly moist while your crop grows. Here are a few tips for growing mesclun--or any other salad greens:
Plant a small patch of salad greens about every two weeks during the planting season rather than a whole bunch at once. Otherwise, you'll have about three weeks of Paul-Bunyan-sized salads, after which you'll be stuck with your usual diet of beer and Cheetos.
Use some fertilizer. You can use just about any balanced fertilizer (ask for advice at your local garden center), or you can use manure. Safety tip: Follow directions on the fertilizer package for use with edible crops. You don't peel or cook lettuce--only rinse it--so you want to be sure that whatever you use is safe.
Protect your salad patch from marauding animals. You don't want cat or dog poop in your salad!. And if you have dogs who like to dig holes to China (I'm looking at you, Fritz and Fergi), be sure to put some barriers up to discourage their excavation. I'm still finding lettuce seedlings in odd places, thanks to my darling greyhounds (the aforementioned Fritz and Fergi), who dug a huge hole in my salad patch the day after I planted the seeds. *sigh*
Use some kind of snail and slug killer. Our dear terrestrial mollusks love salad. Be sure to choose the kind that's safe for kids and pets if you have any two- or four-legged critters in your family.
Dealing with insects: Some insects love salad too. I don't use pesticides on my lettuce, so I occasionally find critters when I harvest. See the paragraph on harvesting, below, for tips on debugging your lettuce.
Weed regularly. You don't want to harvest weeds accidentally with your salad, especially since some weeds are poisonous.
Once your plants are a few inches high, you can start harvesting. Snip some leaves with scissors, leaving at least a couple on each plant, so the plant will keep growing. Once your plants are growing well, you should be able to harvest weekly. Try to harvest in the morning or evening or get them inside quickly, so they don't wilt in the heat.
The next step is to wash the harvested leaves. As I mentioned above, you may find insects on the leaves. To make sure you don't accidentally feed your family bugs (and thereby guarantee they'll never eat homegrown salad again), try immersing freshly-harvested leaves in a bowl of cold water. Swish them around gently, then pour off the water. Repeat a few times, till the water is clean, and you don't see any creepy crawlies in the water. Drain, tear into salad-sized pieces, and either dry (gently) between towels or spin in a salad spinner. Also, please keep in mind that homegrown produce--especially if it's grown without pesticides--won't look as perfect as the stuff you buy in the supermarket. Your lettuce leaves may have a few holes, and you may have to wash off some bugs and dirt. But at least you won't have to wonder what kind of chemicals are lurking in your salad.
Now all you need is a good dressing, and you'll be ready to serve your salad. You can buy bottled dressing, but why smother your beautiful homegrown greens in preservatives and artificial colors? Instead, try making your own dressing. You can find recipes for almost any kind of dressing online. Here are a couple of my favorites:
Catalina-style French dressing from the Tightwad Gazette (buy The Complete Tightwad Gazette on Amazon). The French dressing recipe is also reprinted here, along with some other dressing recipes I haven't tried.
As the weather warms, your lettuce will start sending up seed stalks, a process called bolting--which always makes me picture my lettuce running for its life, while I chase it through the yard, wielding kitchen shears and cackling maniacally. Yes, I did watch too many slasher flicks in the 80s. Anyway, once your lettuce starts to bolt, it will start to taste bitter. At this point, you have two options: pull up the plant and compost it, or leave it and let it go to seed. If you let it go to seed, wait till all the seeds have ripened and fallen before pulling the plants up. Wait till the summer heat passes, then start watering your salad patch, and the seeds should germinate, starting the process over. Note: reseeding may or may not work for you, depending on your climate. But it can be fun to try, and it will give you a good excuse to leave the plants alone till the end of the summer rather than going to the effort of pulling them up. You aren't lazy--you're thrifty!
Rainy Day Gardening is brought to you by Meg and Janet, two librarians who like to play in the dirt.
Born and raised in Northern California, Janet started gardening when she was about 4 (mumble mumble years ago). After relocating to Portland, OR, she became a true rainy day gardener, gardening in the rainy Northwest for 14 years. In 2010, she picked up stakes (and other garden implements) and moved to Southern California, where rainy day gardening is a rarity. She now gardens on about 2/10 of an acre, growing vegetables, fruit, flowers, trees, shrubs, and a fine crop of weeds. Her interests include carnivorous plants, citrus, cottage gardening, her greenhouse, and anything edible.
Meg was born in South Carolina and raised all over the country (plus Japan!), but has been living in Seattle since 1992 and now considers it "home." She has only been gardening for about two years (just bought her first home) and is still in the learning stages. Her interests include bright colors, plants she can snack on while she's weeding, and learning how to keep things healthy and happy without using chemicals.