Grow Your Own Salad Greens

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Many of us grew up in a time when a salad consisted of iceberg lettuce and assorted vegetables. Some restaurants still stick with the standard salad fare, but home gardeners have an amazing amount of options when it comes to growing salad greens. Space doesn’t have to be an issue because spring greens can be sown directly into containers, raised beds or traditional vegetable gardens with ease.

What are “spring or salad greens”? A simple answer would be to list off a few of the basic vegetables that most of us think of when it comes to salads: romaine, bibb or leaf lettuce mixed with arugula, chicory, endive and radicchio.  However, there are many other options such as mustard, spinach, Swiss chard, watercress or even herbs such as dill, basil or chives. You’ll find most mixes are a combination of mild, tangy or even peppery flavors.

Gardeners with a lot of space available may prefer to grow each plant separately, allowing them to harvest and mix the greens themselves. If you have limited space, the easiest thing to do is buy a package of Mesclun, which is a mixture of seeds that can be grown and harvested together. The word is a French term for a group of tender greens that are traditional harvested in the spring. Each seed company tends to have their own special mixture of Mesclun or salad greens.  Burpee has a Mesclun Salad Fresh Cutting Mix that includes “piquant arugula, tangy and nutty endive and radicchio, crisp and sweet red and bright green lettuces, and sharp and spicy mustard”. This is a really nice mix, and one packet will provide several sowings.

The Cook’s Garden has a different type of seed mix that can be sown and harvested to toss with your favorite type of lettuce. Pretty Babies Mix includes equal parts of Beet Chioggia, Swiss Chard Bright Lights, Spinach Reddy, Mustard Mizuna and Corn Salad. They also have a Baby Mustard Mix that can be used the same way.

Once you decide what type of greens you’d like to grow, the rest is fairly easy. Lettuce, and most greens, like cool weather, which is why many gardeners grow greens in the spring, and again in the fall. They don’t do well in the high heat of summer. There are a few varieties that can be grown throughout the summer, but the blends I’ve mentioned need the cooler days to do their best.

THE SOIL
Greens and lettuce are shallow rooted, which is why they can be grown easily in containers, raised beds or garden plots. The soil MUST be worked well, picked over carefully for stones or clumps of dirt. The seeds will be small, and the soil needs to be fertile and worked until it’s completely free of rocks and weeds. The shallow roots I mentioned is one reason the soil must be fine, and not heavy. It will benefit the soil to dig in compost, bone meal or organic fertilizer before sowing greens. I tend to prepare the bed anywhere from a few days to a week ahead and let everything settle, then begin sowing.

If you are using containers it’s important to use a light, bagged potting soil and not dirt from the garden. Greens can be grown in windowboxes, planters, pots, or large bowls. As long as they have drainage holes to keep the soil from becoming soggy, they should work just fine. The container should be at least 16-18 inches round or long, and 6-12 inches deep. I’ve gotten away with 12 inches round in the past. The depth is more important because if it’s too shallow the soil will dry out too quickly, and if it’s too deep it may not drain properly.

SOWING THE SEEDS
Plant the seeds after the soil is prepared, about 1/4 of an inch deep. Cover lightly with soil and water gently. Working with small seeds can be tricky, but taking each step slowly and not rushing goes a long ways to making sure they grow well. Keep the seeds watered lightly so they are moist but not soggy. Protect from strong winds or harsh rain if possible.

When sowing seeds in a container it helps to add the soil, then water lightly a few hours before sowing the seeds. After sowing, water gently after covering with soil as instructed above. The packet of seeds should have approximate germination time listed on the back.

CARE AND HARVEST
After the seeds germinate continue to water lightly, not letting the soil dry out, but never allowing it to become soggy. Applying an organic fertilizer such as a seaweed or fish variety will help the growth of the seedlings.  Never use harsh fertilizer on tender seedlings. A compost tea is also a good choice.

The first harvest will actually be a thinning of the plants. When dealing with tiny seeds it’s almost impossible to properly space, so you’ll need to very gently pull or snip seedlings that are too close to another plant. Simply trim off the tiny root, rinse and throw these thinned seedlings into a salad for your first harvest. In a few weeks the remaining greens should be ready to harvest lightly. Use sharp scissors to trim the largest leaves first, always leaving at least an inch of the plant to continue growing. One packet of seeds will give you enough to repeat the sowing in another container or a different garden space every 2 weeks until the hot days of summer arrive. This is a great way to keep harvesting more greens for your table as long as possible, and get the most from your packet of seeds.

Once you get the hang of growing greens, consider adding edible flowers and herbs to harvest for your salad.  Dill, cilantro, nasturtiums, calendula or chives make wonderful additions to salads.

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