Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
With the price of everything including groceries climbing higher and higher all the time, I highly recommend brightening your spring table with some salad greens you can proudly proclaim you grew yourself. It's really not difficult at all, and it's economical.
I grew up thinking iceberg lettuce was the only kind of lettuce people ate. This was way before so many greens options were readily available for purchase as seed for home gardens, or as ready-to-eat products at the grocery store. I do have some vague recollection of a bright lime-green leaf lettuce growing in our home garden as a child. I remember eating pieces right out of the garden, but I don't remember it ever being really used at mealtimes with my family.
We're used to salad greens meaning lettuce, but if you take a closer look at what is marketed as 'spring mix', 'baby greens' , or 'mesclun', usually not all of it is lettuce. It is not uncommon for these mixes to contain a mix of leaf lettuces, plus other greens like beets, endive, fennel, or mustard greens.
Today we have so many options for salad greens ready-to-eat from the grocery store, but the price tends to be relatively high for these specialty mixes compared to mixes containing iceberg or romaine lettuce. For the price of one ready-to-eat package, you can buy enough seed to produce your own specialty salad mix for an entire season or more.
I used to think of lettuces and greens mixes as a crop only grown as a spring or fall crop, grown in full sun like my other vegetables. I'd been taught and experienced first-hand what happens to lettuce when summer heat sets in—the plants start to bolt, which means produce flowers, and typically this leads to a bitterness in the leaves which makes them inedible. This seemed to be the "rule" to me until I attended a lecture at a conference last year that made me look at things a little differently.
The take-home message of the lecture was that the growing season of lettuce and other salad greens could be extended by growing them in containers that could be moved into the coolness of the shade to delay bolting.
Most vegetables cannot tolerate conditions less than full sun, because full sun is needed for adequate flowering and fruit production—the fruit being the desirable portion of the plant consumed. Lettuce and other greens however, are being grown only for their leaves and can tolerate some shade. We actually want to delay flowering in the case of lettuce and other greens, because that switch to flowering mode is the end of our salad making days.
In the lecture I saw, the presenter introduced plans for what he called a salad table, which has legs like a table, and a raised bed a few feet off the ground, and its "baby" version for small spaces, the salad box, which is much smaller and doesn't have legs, but has handles so you can move it around easily. The plans are available free of charge at the Maryland Cooperative Extension Home and Garden Information Center website at www.hgic.umd.edu , fact sheet #601 "Grow Your Own Greens with Salad Tables and Salad Boxes". Click on the publications tab and look under 'online publications'.
My husband built us a salad table last summer, complete with his own addition of a clear plastic "tent" to extend the season, and we had salad up until January this year. I don't think I'll ever grow salad greens directly in the ground again! What I love about the salad table is it is at a comfortable height to work in. You could get the same comfort from salad mix planted in a pot on a patio table.
I have tried several different mixes of salad greens, and have made one of my own. I made my own mix just by combining seed of different greens that appealed to me in one package.
A big advantage of growing salad greens in a container, whether it's a salad table or a pot, is that you can get your seed planted far earlier than in the garden. I'm beginning to wonder whether my garden will ever dry out enough to plant this year, but my salad table is going strong.
I use a standard potting mix in my salad table, and I would suggest the same if using a pot for salad greens. Garden soil is just too heavy and doesn't drain well in a container.
At planting time, mix in some time-release fertilizer with the potting mix. Then you don't need to remember to fertilize later.
When planting your salad greens seed, the potting mix should be moist but not soaking wet. I don't plant the seed in rows, rather I sprinkle the seed across the planting mix. Gently rake the surface and pat down to ensure the seed has good contact with the soil, which will speed up germination.
As the seed sprouts and grows, ideally you will want to thin the plants out so they all have adequate room to grow. I personally have a hard time doing this. I just can't bring myself to choose which plants stay and which plants go. I still harvest plenty of greens though.
Just like when growing salad greens directly in the ground, you can obtain several harvests from the salad greens grown in containers by harvesting the greens with scissors, then letting the plants continue to grow. This "cut and come again" method should work for at least two or three rounds in a given planting.
Even if you don't think of yourself as a vegetable gardener, try some salad greens in a container this year. Consider greens mixed in as accents with annual flowers in containers. Once you try fresh salad that you harvest from your own porch or patio, you'll be hooked.