Flavor, Freshness, and Food Safety
Have you dreamed of growing gourmet salad greens in your home garden? It’s easier than you may think to grow lettuces, mesclun mixes, and other edible leaves such as chervil, arugula, and endive.
Growing your own salad greens is a real treat, and worth the effort. First off, you’ll enjoy unusual and attractive lettuces and mesclun greens. These include everything from the red-speckled green leaves of “Forellenschluss” to the compact green heads of “Tennis Ball” lettuce, not to mention salad greens like tatsoi, wild chicory, and frisée.
Another benefit is the convenience. When you grow your own salad greens, you can pick just what you need when you need it. There’s no need to buy a larger amount that may spoil before you can enjoy it.
Fresh-picked salad greens can have a higher nutritional value than store-bought greens. The flavor of homegrown salad greens is also noticeably better, as most kitchen gardeners will affirm. This is due to the extreme freshness of your salad, when you can use the instant "pick and plate" approach to preparation. Once you taste salad greens straight from the garden, you’ll be spoiled for life.
But arguably the greatest benefit is that of human health. In recent decades, there has been an increase in the percentage of foodborne illnesses related to produce, and greens have been one of the biggest culprits. This is mainly due to the soft leaves of the greens, which retain any germs they come in contact with. The CDC estimates that roughly 22 percent of all foodborne illness is caused by leafy greens. This has grown from less than one percent 40 years ago. This may be the best reason to grow your own leafy greens: while store-bought produce must be thoroughly washed to reduce the risk of illness, you can be sure that greens grown at home are much safer.
Don’t be surprised if your kids want to get involved. Lettuces and mesclun mixes are easy, carefree vegetables for children’s gardens. Salad greens grow quickly, and the baby leaves can often be harvested in about 30 to 40 days. Many of these greens are “cut and come again.” When you cut leaves back about an inch from the ground, the leaves will grow back again a few more times.
Lettuce Get Started
Lettuces and mesclun mixes prefer rich, moist, well-drained soil that has been amended with compost, well-aged manure, or worm castings. You can start with plants from your local garden center, but it’s very easy to grow lettuce and mesclun from seeds. For the price of a seed packet, you can enjoy a lot of salads. And you’ll find more varieties available from seeds than plants.
In early spring, sow seeds in finely worked soil in a sunny spot. Plant lettuce in rows spaced 12 to 18 inches apart. Or, you can scatter or broadcast seeds about a half inch apart over the entire seedbed, as is typically done with mesclun mixes. Cover seeds lightly with a quarter-inch of fine soil.
Keep your seedbed evenly moist, especially during germination. Supplement with regular foliar feedings of fish emulsion or seaweed emulsion. Birds often eat seedlings, so consider covering young plants with bird netting.
Growing Greens Year-Round
Salad greens are cool-season vegetables that grow best in temperatures ranging from 45 to 80 degrees F. That’s why salad greens thrive in spring and fall. When temperatures get too hot, lettuces will bolt and turn bitter.
You can extend your harvest, however, by planting the right varieties and using weather protection. Some lettuce varieties are more heat-tolerant than others. Here are a few examples:
Along with planting heat-tolerant varieties, protect salad greens by giving them afternoon shade. You can grow lettuces shaded by corn stalks, tomato plants, and bean trellises, a technique called “companion planting.”
For a fall crop, plant lettuces about four to eight weeks before the first frost. To keep the salad greens growing through winter, use row covers or cold frames once temperatures start falling.
Planting lettuce varieties at home is easy and the benefits of fresh garden greens are threefold: the freshness is unbeatable, the flavor is notably better because your ability to “pick and plate” leaves no time for quality to deteriorate, and the assurance of safer greens allows you to enjoy your greens with confidence.