Growing Salad Greens

There's more to growing salad greens than just planting lettuce

March 13, 2011

Is a bowl of iceberg lettuce slathered in dressing the salad you’re used to eating, even though you think it’s boring? Have you ever wondered what was in that spring mix or mesclun mix you were served in a restaurant or bought bagged at the grocery? Do you think your garden greens are limited to lettuce, and that other greens are somehow exotic?

You, too, can grow a wide range of salad greens and salad enhancements. It’s no harder than growing lettuce, and in many cases, a lot easier. Creating a salad that’s bursting with flavor and color is an art, but since most salad greens and enhancements go well together, it’s hard to go wrong. And fortunately, most seed companies now carry a wide range of mixes and individual species and cultivars that take the guesswork out of growing salad greens.


Salad Essentials
If you want to go beyond lettuce, try these delicious greens in your salads. You can eat some of them—spinach, arugula, and bok choy, for example—on their own, or mix them with lettuces and other greens like radicchio and mustard greens to give your salads spice and depth. Mesclun can also be the base of a salad or be mixed in with other greens. And don’t forget red, green, and Savoy cabbage, which are excellent as accents in tossed salads or in starring roles in cole slaw.

Arugula (Eruca vesicaria ssp. sativa): Also called rocket and roquette. Rich, peppery flavor. Sow seed in early spring or fall, thinning seedlings to space plants 4 to 6 inches apart with 10 inches between rows. Use thinnings in salads, and start harvesting mature greens in 6 to 8 weeks. Tends to bolt quickly in hot, dry weather.


Bak choy (Brassica rapa): Also called bok choi and pak choi. Attractive cabbage relatives with long, thick white stems and dark green leaves. Young bok choy is delicious in salads and makes a succulent cole slaw. Sow seed in early spring or fall; grow like cabbage. Plants prefer cool growing conditions. (‘Canton Bok’ is a more heat-tolerant cultivar.) Space plants 8 to 12 inches apart in the row and 12 inches between rows. Harvest entire small heads or larger individual leaves.

Chicory (Cichorium intybus): A relative of endive and escarole, chicory (also called witloof chicory or Belgian endive) is delicious as a winter salad green when forced indoors. See the Endive entry for details on growing and forcing chicory.

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Endive and escarole (Cichorium endivia): The lacy, cream green, frilly leaves of endive are often called frisee, while the broad-leaved forms are often sold as escarole. Start these bitter greens indoors for an early summer harvest or in the garden in summer for an autumn crop, thinning plants to stand a foot apart. (Note: That touch of bitterness is prized in Europe, adding sophistication to a potentially bland salad.) Blanch plants for a buttery color and milder flavor.

Kale (Brassica oleracea, Acephala group): Kale adds substance, color, and nutrition to a salad—the thick, blue-green, purple-green, green-black, or white-green leaves are packed with vitamins and minerals. Some cultivars are deeply frilled while others are deeply puckered; all add texture and variety to a mixed salad. Sow in early spring or late summer, thinning plants to 2 feet apart. Harvest the young leaves individually for salads.

Mizuna (Brassica juncea var. japonica): Attractive, compact green plant matures in 35 days, tolerates heat, and is easy to grow. Serrated leaves add a cabbagy, mustardy flavor to salads. Sow seed in early spring; grow like spinach.

Mustard greens (Brassica juncea): Attractive red or green loose-leaf or heading mustards. Loose-leaf types mature in 45 days; heading mustards need 60 to 75 days to head up. Plants tolerate heat and light frost, and they’re easy to grow. Leaves of oriental mustard cultivars tend not to be as hot or biting as Southern mustard greens. Direct-seed in early spring or fall, barely covering with soil. Space plants 6 inches apart in the row, thinning to 10 inches; leave 10 to 12 inches between rows.


Radicchio (Cichoria intybus): This bitter Italian heading chicory has become a favorite of salad lovers everywhere. Its gorgeous deep garnet, white-based leaves add rich color and texture to salads, and the flavor adds sophistication. Start indoors as with endive and escarole for spring planting; space 6 inches apart when you transplant them outdoors. Plants form tight, 4-inch heads.

Spinach (Spinacia oleracea): This salad staple can be harvested when the leaves are small (“baby spinach”) to use whole in salads or when they’re mature. Sow seed in early spring and late summer for spring and fall crops, thinning to 4 to 6 inches apart. (Use thinnings in salads or stir-fries.) Spinach is rich in vitamins and minerals, so it’s one of the healthiest salad choices.

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Growing Guidelines
Salad greens enjoy the same growing conditions as lettuce: humus-rich, evenly moist but well-drained soil. Greens typically grow best in cool weather; hot weather makes them bolt to seed or, with plants like mustard greens, develop a more fiery flavor than plants grown in cooler spring or fall weather. Broadcast the seeds of salad greens and rake lightly to cover them, or sow seeds ¼ inch apart and as thinly as possible in rows 1½ feet apart. Sow in spring once the soil has reached at least 35°F, and again in late summer for a fall crop.

For the most beautiful salad greens you can imagine, cover seeded areas with floating row cover and leave the cover in place throughout the duration of the crop. The greens will retain their color and tenderness better under the protection of the cover. Check underneath occasionally to remove weeds (which will also enjoy the sheltered environment) and to hand pick any slugs that might have found the crop.

When the seedlings have four leaves, thin plants to 6 inches apart. Make sure the crop gets at least 1 inch of water a week from rain or irrigation. To help prevent disease, try to water on sunny mornings, so the leaves can dry by evening. If you aren’t using row cover, apply a thick layer of mulch to conserve moisture, suffocate weeds around the easily damaged roots, and keep leaves free of dirt. To promote quick growth, side-dress with compost tea or fish emulsion once or twice during the growing season.


Salad Enhancements

There’s no reason to limit your salad-growing exploits to the main crops. Add additional excitement to your salads with fresh leaves of the plants in this list. All add distinctive, delicious bites of flavor that will give your salads depth and take them from good to great. Nasturtium and chive flowers are also edible and will give your salads added beauty.

  • Basil
  • Parsley
  • Chives
  • Pepper cress
  • Cilantro 
  • Scallions
  • Garlic chives 
  • Sorrel
  • Mint 
  • Thyme
  • Nasturtium
  • Watercress

For more information about growing an organic garden, buy Rodale's Ultimate Encylcopedia of Organic Gardening.