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.
Detail on each type of salad green is on its way.
Big thanks to:
Supported by Bellingen Shire Council via the Bellingen Shire Disaster Recovery and Resilience Grant Program Funding