Overview and History
Curiously, salad got its start not as a dietary staple but as an aphrodisiac. We know this because leafy relations to modern romaine are depicted in ancient paintings as sustaining Min, the Egyptian god of fertility. Fast-forward a few thousand years and the fertility connection was still paramount in paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, including the Leda, which depicts a child holding a bouquet of lamb’s lettuce (today’s mâché) next to the goddess of fertility.
By this point in the 1500s, raw, leafy vegetables covered in oily, salted dressing were well established in the Roman diet as “herba salta” — literally, “salted herbs,” or the not-so-distant cousins of tasty greens that define the healthful salads, appetizers, and mains we enjoy today.
Basic Types and Variety Names
The Asteraceae family is the source of some of the best-known salad greens:
- Lettuce is a mild-flavored leafy annual that is available in many types, textures, colors and shapes.
- Chicories like endive and radicchio are perennial herbaceous plants that punctuate savory dishes with a bitter flavor profile.
- Dandelion greens, the mortal foe of spring lawns, are surprisingly diverse culinary additions, offering unique flavor and health benefits.
The Amaranthaceae family includes another popular green:
- Spinach is a leafy annual that’s native to central and western Asia. In the United States and around the world, it’s harvested at many stages, from baby leaf to full-size leaves.
Bring on the Brassicaceae family for superior flavor and cold hardiness:
- Arugula, also called “rocket,” is a spicy-flavored leafy annual with a strong following among greens lovers.
- Kale is a nutrient-rich green, leafy, cruciferous vegetable.
- Mustard greens offer a zesty and colorful dimension to salad mixes.
For added flavor and visual appeal, think beyond the aisle of standard greens:
- Asian greens offer a wide array of shoots, leaves and choys that bring a unique look, flavor and dimension to salads.
- Chard, better known as Swiss chard and recognized for health benefits, is a green leafy vegetable with large leaf stalks typically prepared separately from stems.
- Herbs, from basil to cilantro to watercress to dill and more, fresh herbs can always take your salads and often entire meals to the next level.
- “Tops” are the tender greens of beet and turnip.
Salad Greens to Try
- Cheap Frills Mix is a diverse, frilly mix from Johnny’s Seeds that is a great introduction to different leaf types, and a visual stunner with beautiful red and green color variation.
- Oceanside is a versatile, dark-green spinach featuring nice, thick leaves with round and oval shape and is versatile enough to be used for baby leaf or full-size leaves.
- Ezpark, part of the Eazyleaf series, is a vibrant green incised tango. An excellent choice for all seasons, Ezpark grows well and features impressive yield and uniformity.
- Marciano is a compact red butterhead with nice buttery leaves that showcase a deep burgundy exterior surrounding a well-filled interior of fresh bright green leaves.
- Jara is a dark green romaine that produces beautiful compact heads and is slow to bolt in the heat.
- Eliance is a heat-tolerant, smooth-leaved, self-bleaching escarole (endive). Eliance is an easy-to-grow introduction to chicories, offering high yield and tender leaves.
- Redbor is a tall kale with impressive deep purple color. A vigorous grower with deeply serrated leaves and sturdy stems, Redbor is an excellent choice especially for cooler climates, as its color strengthens and flavor sweetens with looming frost. Beyond the salad bowl, Redbor is a great garnish or addition to floral arrangements.
How to Grow Salad Greens in Your Garden
Salad greens are all unique in terms of how they grow best, so it’s well worth following the specific planting instructions as written on the package for each variety to ensure a bountiful and continuous home harvest throughout your growing season.
Most greens prefer cool weather (50 to 75 F), so consider if that’s winter, spring or fall in your area, so you can be ready to plant.
Plant all greens in full sun. Soil that’s evenly moist but not too wet yields the best greens. As a general guide, spinach, kale and mustard greens can be sown six weeks before the last frost, followed by lettuce and chard three weeks later. You can choose to transplant seedlings or sow seeds directly into the garden. Transplants can be started earlier to get a jump on the season.
Leafy greens grow well in the garden and are also ideal for containers. To prepare outdoor soil, consider mixing in 1 cup of organic fertilizer for every 10-foot row and ensure the soil is evenly moist. For containers, choose one that is large enough so it won’t easily dry out. Fill with quality potting mix and consider mixing in peat and coir. Soil should be kept moist, not soggy. Planting depth varies by variety, so be sure to read seed package instructions. Note that some seeds, like lettuce, need light to germinate, so take care not to plant too deep.
After germination, thin seedlings to desired spacing. If your goal is baby leaf, keep the spacing fairly dense. If you’d like to harvest whole heads, ensure spacing of 4-8 inches apart within a row.
For baby leaf, you can start harvesting when leaves are 3-4 inches tall. Many varieties will tolerate “cut-and-come-again” harvests. Allow full-size heads three to five weeks after transplant to mature.
Leafy greens will have different flavors at different stages of harvest. Experiment to find out which flavor works best for you.
As much as possible, monitor for overexposure to heat and water to avoid “stressed greens” that taste bitter rather than fresh. When plants bolt (or send up flower stalks), pull them up as the quality will start to diminish after this.
To ensure a continuous harvest, reseed as often as every few weeks depending on the variety.
With so many fabulous greens to choose from, each of which grows a little differently, it takes some worthwhile diligence to achieve your salad goals — and it’s worth it!
10 Tips for Growing and Using Salad Greens
- Plan for successions, instead of one big planting.
- Whole lettuce heads can be successfully stored longer than individual cut leaves.
- In colder regions, row cover protection can help achieve an earlier first harvest in the spring and a later final harvest in the fall.
- Pelleted or coated seed can improve the ease of planting and ensure less thinning.
- Hardier greens like kale, mustard and spinach offer cold-season and overwinter opportunities for the dedicated home gardener.
- Once leaves reach maturity, harvest right away to encourage new growth, followed by another harvest in just a few weeks.
- Store seeds in the fridge in an airtight container to extend longevity.
- Pair bitter greens with a sweet dressing and your favorite soft cheese for a gourmet flavor combination.
- Try choosing a theme and then let your creativity fly to create a new and interesting salad mix every time.
- Sturdier greens like romaine, kale and chicory hold up well when mixed with grains, nuts and thick dressings.
Use your salad greens in unexpected ways. Red butterhead makes a fabulous and healthy burger wrap. Grilled romaine? A tasty twist on an old favorite. Wilted spinach? It’s incredible. Massaged kale? Try it and you’ll be hooked!
This article was originally published on the National Garden Bureau‘s website.