30 May 2022
People love salads. Salad greens are one of, if not the most popular choice for people to try and grow at home. Thankfully they are excellent for beginners. Salad greens are fast to grow, easy, don’t take up much space, and grow almost all year round. Not only that, they are a lot cheaper and often fresher and more nutritious than what you can buy anywhere. For these many reasons salad greens are also one of the top favourites to try growing for people short on time and garden space. This article will be focusing on lettuce and other common inclusions in a mesclun mix such as rocket, mizuna, tatsoi, watercress, mustards and chicories.
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Everyone should eat something fresh every day and having salad greens on hand to pick fresh makes that really easy. Ideally, grow these greens so they are easy to access from the kitchen so you can just duck out and snip a few things for each meal.
Not just lettuce.
A salad should have diversity. A salad picked from forty different plants is a riot of flavour and nutrition compared to a standard six plant mesclun mix. In addition to the salad greens we’ll be covering in this article, a wander through the garden armed with the knowledge from the ‘Why grow spinach’ articles part one and part two, should give you a giant bowlful of edibles to add for almost no extra growing effort. The extra options include herbs (article coming); sprouts; spring onions (onion family article coming); young leaves and tips from vegies you may already be growing such as broad beans, snow peas, cucumber, beetroot, radish, rosella and turnip; any young brassica leaves such as kale, bok choy, broccoli; any raw spinach substitutes such as sweet potato leaves, buckwheat, rainbow chard, okinawa or longevity spinach and mushroom plant; the high protein leaves of moringa, sweet leaf and aibika (article coming); edible flowers such as nasturtium, rose petals, echinacea, violet, snapdragons, marigold and any vegie or herb flowers; and edible weeds such as dandelion, cat’s ear, sow thistle, gotu kola, herb robert geranium, miracle grass, broadleaf plantain and chickweed. What a variety!!
Here’s the bad news. You know how you like to eat a cooling salad on a hot summers’ day? That is the worst time of year to be trying to grow salad greens. Most of these plants are happiest in the cool season. It is also pretty simple to keep them content in the shoulder seasons, but that really hot time of year? They hate it. They get stressed. They stop making leaves, bolt to seed and taste awful.
There is a seasonal variation in how to get the best from these plants.
Over the cool season they do really well. Although they will grow more slowly than when it is warm they will bush out, can become large plants and make plenty of large tasty leaves. They will cope with light frost only. Grow them in full sun.
Over the shoulder seasons, as it’s getting warmer or cooler, a covering of 50% shadecloth is perfect to keep the plants that bit cooler and to encourage them to make large leaves. The reduced light means the plants need larger solar panels to be able to grow! 60% shadecloth has been found to be too much shade and 30% is not enough. Build a frame so the shadecloth can sit over tight. An added bonus is this tends to mean the bugs and slugs take longer to find the leaves. Or, grow the plants in dappled shade under or behind a taller plant or trellis.
Over the hot season they grow faster, a lot faster. But they do not get anywhere near as bushy or big as when it’s cold. It’s usually better to pick them as small greens rather than trying to wait for them to mature much. The plants have a strong tendency to bolt suddenly if they become stressed by drying out at all, or too much heat. Just one day of water or heat stress can be enough and that’s the end of their leaf making. They tend to become more bitter tasting as the weather warms and once they flower. Consider growing in the shade during this time. You may well need to water twice a day. Wicking beds can be terrific from the point of view of keeping the water up to the plants. They are brilliant at this and use about 1/6 of the water of a conventional garden. In any case, keep the plants mulched to help keep their roots moist. Faster growing also means the heads of lettuces are not tight. Warmer weather suits growing loose leaf salad greens. Plant transplants out in the evening to give them some time to settle in before having to cope with the heat of the day, and shade the transplants for a few days at least or they will fry.
Vary the spacing of the salad greens by the season. They are large and bushy in the cool but won’t get as big in warmer weather. How much variation? One grower described being able to make two bunches of coriander for sale from one plant in winter. In summer, it takes six plants to make a bunch. Salad greens are very similar. Plant them further apart when it’s cool and closer together as the season warms. The aim is to keep the soil covered with foliage as much as possible.
If you want salad greens all year round, keep planting. Sow a punnet of greens every 2 – 3 weeks. Keep replacing what’s been used. These are often quite short lived plants, around 3 months, give or take a month. Continuous sowing will keep you well supplied with tender tasty greens. If there’s a disaster, it’s not long until more plants are ready to pick from. What you don’t want to do is to plant once every 3 – 6 months and expect to have young succulent leaves anytime. That won’t work.
Salad greens are not hungry or competitive plants. They are perfect for popping into a space inbetween other plants where one has died and left a gap. They are great for making short term use of wasted space next to a longer and larger growing plant while the other plant is still young and small ie garlic. They have VERY shallow roots which is why they demand frequent watering. It’s also why they need food available near the surface. They don’t need rich soil to grow but they will taste better. Regular foliar feeding, weekly if possible, is a good idea. While they like constant moisture, they need good drainage too, especially in the top 30cm of soil.
Grow plenty of whatever you choose. It’s frustrating to not have enough. Go for variety. For instance, never have just one type of lettuce growing. Hedge your bets. Grow multiple varieties of salad greens so you will always have something no matter what the seasons and the weather are doing. These greens can be sown direct, scattered on the surface and barely covered. Or just let good plants go to seed and they will come up. Or grow the seeds in punnets and transplant out. These plants aren’t fussy. They just need a good amount of sun and regular watering to keep their roots moist. You will probably need to keep an eye out for slugs, caterpillars and aphids. Wild rabbits and kangaroos will decimate these greens if they have access.
Start picking when the plants are quite small. You don’t need to wait for them to mature. Four true leaves (six leaves total) is enough to begin picking. Just take one leaf per plant. This is why it’s a good idea to plant tonnes.
A note on contamination. This is relevant for all food growing but is particularly worth noting for salad greens as they tend to be eaten raw.
Unfriendly microbes such as E. coli and salmonella can come from raw (uncomposted) manure, or worse, sewerage. This can be from fertilising the area, but also from road runoff, runoff from paddocks with livestock, planting where livestock have been kept within the last 12 months, flooding, or using water from where there is intensive livestock upstream.
Persistent chemical contamination can come from the land being near a busy road, near buildings with weathered exterior (lead) paint, previously being a non-organic orchard, previously being a rifle range or similar, chemical storage nearby, termite treatment of old houses or sheds and near power poles, being near a dip site for livestock, or non organic sugar cane, sweet corn, tobacco or potato growing.
Salad greens – local details
Here’s more growing detail for the most commonly known and grown salad greens in this area.
Lettuce (Lactuca sativa)
Lettuces are generally very easy to grow and ideal for beginner gardeners. They are an extremely tolerant plant who thrives regardless of soil mineral issues. What they don’t like is excessive rain (they rot or get diseases), competition from weeds (they always lose) slugs (munch munch party), anything other than a touch of light frost (-3°C or less damages leaves and kills seedlings), excessive heat (7 – 23°C is perfect, thanks), lack of constant water (no water, I’m dying, make seeds, bolt!!), and wind (damages leaves).
They are ready to pick a few leaves after just 2 – 3 weeks, and ready to pick an entire head in 6 – 12 weeks.
Seed germination is interesting. The best temperature is 0 – 10°C. The lower the temperature the slower the germination, 7 weeks at 0°C – 2 days at 25°C. Germination is inhibited above 25 – 35°C, depending on the variety. If the temperature stays up, the seed won’t germinate even after the temperature drops again. Don’t try and start lettuces from seed when it’s hot. Germination is promoted by light and inhibited by dark. Don’t sow lettuce seeds deep, just sprinkle them on the surface and cover lightly with fine soil.
If you’re saving seed, do this from plants that have been the slowest to bolt otherwise you’ll quickly breed a line of lettuces that go to seed way too fast. Also worth knowing about lettuces and bolting, and a good reason to keep them shaded as the weather warms and days lengthen, “long periods of high light intensities can also affect lettuce as it has an internal counter that keeps track of the number of daylight hours the plant receives. Once a critical number of hours are received, the plant will bolt.” From the Field lettuce production Agfact sheet.
There are five main types of lettuce:
Looseleaf varieties are the easiest to grow well generally, and are much easier to grow than the other types as the weather becomes warmer. Great for picking a few leaves at a time.
These are the oakleaf and similar lettuces, with very frilly or ruffled loose leaves, in greens and reds. If it’s frilly and spicy, it’s actually a mustard (brassica). Lettuces are mild tasting. The variety ‘Australian yellow’ was mentioned as being particularly tolerant of higher temperatures, while ‘Darwin’ is considered the most heat tolerant of all lettuces.
Butterhead is the next easiest to grow lettuce type. Soft and buttery leaves. Great for picking a few leaves at a time. These have wavy loose leaves and some varieties are Mignonette, Butter Lettuce, White Boston.
Romaine / Cos is a very hardy lettuce type. Crunchy. Great for picking a few leaves at a time. Can be reasonably tolerant of high temperatures, for a lettuce.
Crisphead / Iceberg is the most difficult type to grow well and the least suited to this area. It will only form a tight crisp head over the cool season. It does not tolerate warmth or humidity and does not lend itself to picking just a few leaves. It needs to be grown to full size before picking.
Celtuce (Lactuca sativa var. augustana, angustata, or asparagina), also called stem lettuce, celery lettuce, asparagus lettuce or Chinese lettuce. This type is considered hardy and easy to grow with a long season. Celtuce is usually grown for it’s stem, which is peeled and eaten either raw and crunchy, or cooked. The leaves are bitter but perfectly edible. Young leaves are the least bitter. The stems can grow to 1m high and are best grown fast for tenderness. If they’re wider than about an inch, they will be getting woody. The flavour is described as reminiscent of asparagus, celery, lettuce or artichoke, with nutty and smokey notes.
Corn salad / lamb’s lettuce / maché (Valerianella locusta)
Corn salad really prefers the cold. It will thrive in snow touched areas as it can cope with temperatures down to -15°C. However, it needs to be germinated when the temperature is 5 – 20°C and will fail to germinate outside this range. Even when conditions are right, it can take its sweet time about germinating. A week or two is normal, or up to a month! The seeds can be sown direct or in pots and prefer to be under up to 0.5cm of soil. Space plants about 15cm apart. They like to be kept moist.
Don’t bother trying to grow it here outside of the coldest part of the season. Even then it’s not so happy here. Corn salad tends to bolt very quickly when mature, or when the season warms. Aside from its cold tolerance, it is prized for it’s very tender leaves which can be eaten raw or cooked. The plant matures in 40 – 70 days, to a 30cm wide and high, very low to the ground, open leaved rosette of a plant. This is an annual who requires full sun and plenty of food.
There is an edible close relative, V. eriocarpa, with hairy leaves that is suitable for warmer climates. It’s known as Italian corn salad or Hairy fruited corn salad. Depending on your source, the leaves are either much larger or smaller than Corn salad and it is either a great alternative or rather plain eating and not the delicacy that V. locusta is. I suspect the variation in opinions is due to differences in cultivated vs wild varieties.
There are about twenty plants known as rocket. These are the two most common ones.
Italian rocket / common rocket (Eruca sativa) is a very reliable plant who is very easy to grow. This is an annual in the brassica family that won’t cross with other brassicas. It prefers the cool season in a sunny spot, but if shaded and kept moist can be grown almost all year round. The leaves are large and mildly peppery. Young leaves are best. After flowering the leaves become bitter. Fertilising with fresh manure (which is a bad idea anyway) is known to give rocket an unpleasant flavour. It is prone to bolting if it gets dry, and dryness also tends to make the leaves bitter. Italian rocket can cope with light frost only.
The seeds germinate reliably, best at 10 – 25°C soil temperature in 5 – 7 days or less. Sow 0.5cm deep. Plant 15cm apart. Leaves will be ready for individual picking from about 3 weeks. The plants can be kept in good eating condition for months, up to a full year, but it’s probably best to sow more every month or two. The plant is about 45cm of frillyness on thin branches in every direction, with a flower stalk nearly a metre tall if it starts going to seed.
Wild rocket (Diplotaxis tenuifolia) is a completely different plant to Italian rocket, though the flavour is similar but more intense.The leaves are notably much smaller. It is also a brassica, one of the mustards. Wild rocket can be a short lived perennial but is usually grown for salad as an annual. It is slower growing, taking about 2 weeks to germinate, best when the soil temperature is 20 – 30°C. This plant is drought proof once established, and is more tolerant of heat and cold than Italian rocket. This is a sprawling plant of around 60cm in every direction if allowed to grow to maturity.
Growing directions are the same as for Italian rocket. A tip, however. As the leaves are so much smaller and rather tedious to pick enough individually, sow wild rocket in little clumps. At about 5 weeks cut off the entire plants to eat. The plants will regrow again. Repeat. The third time they regrow you will be down to individual leaf pickings, and it’s time to sow new plants.
Upland cress / American upland cress / Land cress (Barbarea verna) is a biennial plant with a reputation of being easy to grow. The taste is a very similar peppery flavour to watercress, but without the requirement for pond-like conditions. It can be used as a rocket or watercress substitute. As a biennial, Upland cress keeps going and does not bolt as easily as Italian rocket (an annual) and the leaves are a similar size. It has good cold tolerance too. Grow as for Italian rocket. The plant may reach 80cm in height.
Land cress / Wintercress / Upland cress (Barbarea vulgaris) ditto as above for Upland cress. Yes, these common names are confusingly interchangeable. Additionally, Land cress can be grown as a trap crop for cabbage moth. The moths are attracted to this plant, lay their eggs on it but the leaves are poisonous to the growing caterpillars and they die. This is due to saponin levels in the leaves and it is in no way harmful to us. This ‘dead end trap cropping’ does work, but in practice it’s nowhere near as effective as you would like.
Watercress (Nasturtium officinale)
A perennial brassica with a peppery flavour. A native pond plant of Australia and many other places. Watercress grows prolifically in clean, slow-running water all by itself. It will do ok in boggy ground or a pond or pot. It goes to seed fast in hot weather and the leaves turn bitter after it flowers. The leaves do not keep more than a couple of days after picking. Watercress can be eaten raw or cooked. It likes to grow in shady wet areas and doesn’t like frost or stagnant water. It has an unusual preference for alkaline conditions, pH 10. The stems float on the surface, only about 20cm high. Sow seeds in the shoulder seasons, either in a dish of water, or in a compost-filled seed tray half submerged in water.
Asian salad greens
Mizuna (B. rapa var. nipposinica or B. rapa var. japonica) is a hardy and easy to grow plant. It comes in greens and reds and the leaves are deeply serrated and distinctly feathery shaped. It has a mild mustard / rocket flavour. Mizuna is a biennial, usually grown as an annual. Annual plants reach about 45cm high and 30cm wide. Second year plants can turn into an impressive bush twice that size. Although mizuna likes a drink and prefers the cool season, it is drought proof once established and will be one of the last to bolt in hot weather. It also is quite cold tolerant. Mizuna is happy in full sun or part shade. Baby leaves are ready in 3 weeks. Plants are full sized in about 6 weeks. Seeds germinate best at temperatures between 15 – 25°C. Sow them 6mm deep.
Mibuna is so closely related to mizuna that it has the same latin name. Mibuna is not as hardy – it is less tolerant of drought and the extremes of hot and cold than mizuna. Mibuna leaves are rounded, not serrated.
Mustard greens (B. juncea)
These are hardy plants that grow easily and self seed readily. They won’t cross with other brassicas, just other mustards. This is the same family as the vegetable Gai choy. There are many varieties of mustards, with broad leaves in flat or frilly, red or green, and mild to hot mustard-pepper flavours. These are annuals, ready for baby leaves in 3 weeks, and as full plants in 7 – 9 weeks. They can be eaten raw or cooked. Best germinated at 18 – 20°C. Sow seeds about 5mm deep. They are happy in full sun or part shade. They can be grown all year round but prefer the cool season and will bolt in hot weather. Plants are about 50cm tall by 30cm wide.
Wasabi lettuce is a bright green frilly and stealthily hot variety of mustard greens that really is like sinus-clearing wasabi paste, in ‘lettuce’ form. It does really well here. It’s so hardy that it would probably survive a nuclear war. This self seeds all over the place and doesn’t tend to bolt too quickly. Grow as for mustards above.
Tatsoi (B. rapa subsp. narinosa or B. rapa var. rosularis) has it’s own flavour, neither peppery nor bland, with thick juicy leaves. It is happy down to -10°C and can be picked from under snow! A cool season treat only, Tatsoi is the one of the first to bolt when the season begins to warm. Very easy to grow otherwise. This is a little plant 30cm wide and about 10cm high, with leaves shaped and sized like spoons, forming a multilayered rosette. Sow seeds about 5mm deep. The plant will be full size in just 6 weeks. It can be eaten raw or lightly cooked.
Chicory, radiccio & witloof (Cichorium intybus)
Shaped like a cos lettuce (sometimes with dandelion shaped leaves). Leaves can be eaten raw or cooked and are appreciated for their bitterness. Green leaved varieties are known as chicory. Red leaved varieties are known as radicchio and blanched chicory is called witloof. The root is massively thick (wrist sized) and deep and useful for breaking up compacted soil. The root is dried and ground and used commercially as a coffee substitute.
As a salad green, individual immature leaves can be picked or a full head of chicory should be ready in about 50 – 150 days. It isn’t a fussy plant but it does better in the cooler months here and heat makes the leaves less palatable than they already are. Blanched leaves shielded from the sun are sweet. Chicory is often a biennial that can be cross pollinated by endive. Unless saving the seed, assume the same useful lifespan as a lettuce.
Endive (Cichorium endivia)
Shaped like a looseleaf lettuce with very frilly or puckered leaves that can be eaten raw or cooked. The green leaves are appreciated for their bitterness. Individual immature leaves can be picked or a full head of endive should be ready in about 90 days. Inner leaves shielded from the sun are sweet.
This is a definite cold season plant in this area, that bolts very easily if it gets dry. Keep mulched and moist. Endive is a biennial self pollinated plant. It will not be pollinated by anything else. It is about the size of any frilly lettuce. Unless saving the seed, assume the same useful lifespan as a lettuce.
This is a perennial clumping large leaved plant that is really hardy. Although usually classed as a herb it was frequently mentioned by interviewees as a salad green. Sorrel will respond well to being subdivided into multiple clumps every 3 – 5 yearsover the cool season, but it will continue on even if you don’t bother. It needs no care. This is one of the few salad greens that likes summer. It doesn’t seem to have any major pests or diseases. It will grow to about 40 – 60cm high and 60cm wide.
Broad leaved sorrel / Garden sorrel / Common sorrel / French sorrel (Rumex acetosa) haswide pale all-green leaves. It has deep roots which means it survives drought and heavy rain (with drainage). It is the hardiest and easiest of the sorrels to grow. The flavour is tart andstrongly lemony.
Red veined sorrel (Rumex sanguineus)is more bitter flavoured than common sorrel. It prefers more even watering and can be happily planted on the edge of a pond.
Buckler leaf sorrel / French sorrel (Rumex scutatus) is a more of a creeping clump, reaching 1m diameter. The leaves are green and distinctly arrow shaped. The flavour is said to be tangy, very good and useful as a lettuce. It doesn’t mind growing in shade and may prefer this.
For all of them, eat the young leaves as older ones are very astringent. The more sun that sorrel receives, the more acidic / astringent tasting the leaves are too. You could try growing a few clumps, one each in full sun, full shade and part sun to see what suits your tastebuds.
Big thanks to:
Camilla from Autarky Farm, John Vernon and the Bellingen Seedsavers blog, Pete Bufo, Nicole and Matt from Dolly’s Run, Mark Graham from Bellingen Nature Tours, Kyles Woodbury formerly of The Vegie Gardener, Joy Foley, John Hodgkinson, Jeff Holmes, Carole & Phil Helman, Ian Thomas from The Gourmet Garden School, Harry Campbell from Pollinate Permaculture, Daisy Dollisson
Supported by Bellingen Shire Council via the Bellingen Shire Disaster Recovery and Resilience Grant Program Funding
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Asian salad greens
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Endive & chicory
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