Fresh Greens for the Spring Salad Garden
Though spring has seemingly been right around the corner since December, there are still some cold days ahead that will be perfect for growing fresh lettuce and other greens for the garden. Because of their relatively short germination period and excellent performance in cooler weather, leafy greens are not only a delicious, but also nutritious and space-saving addition to any garden. Even if you live in an apartment or have limited space in which you can grow, fresh greens are perfect for those small areas.
Lettuce comes in two basic types: loose leaf and head lettuce. The loose leaf varieties, also known as leaf lettuce, make open, loose heads and are among the easiest (and tastiest) to grow. Loose leaf lettuces come in many shapes and colors including ruffled green varieties like ‘Black seeded Simpson’ and ‘Simpson Elite’, as well as some interesting red-leafed selections such as ‘Carioca’, ‘Red Sails’, ‘Red Salad Bowl’, and ‘Cherokee.’ If you want to get really creative, look for the deeply lobed oakleaf varieties. Looseleaf varieties are usually ready to harvest within 30-40 days after starting from seed. These types of lettuces can be planted 8-10 inches apart or, if growing a salad patch, plant closer together and harvest by clipping leaves a couple of inches above the soil. You can make two or three harvests from a patch. If you want to have continual harvest, succession plant seeds every 7-10 days.
A couple of other lettuce varieties that work include the bib and romaine lettuces. Romaine lettuce is the staple in Caesar salads and has an excellent crunch and slightly sweet flavor that compliments itself in a mix or by itself. Romaine lettuce is typically ready to harvest between 60-80 days from planting. Because they can get rather large, space romaine lettuces about 10-12 inches apart. A couple of varieties to try include ‘Salvius’, ‘Ridgeline’, and ‘Breen’, a compact romaine variety with red leaves.
Butterleaf, also known as bib, gets its name from the slight buttery flavor the leaves produce. Space these about 6-8 inches apart and harvest between 40 and 50 days after seeding. Try varieties such as ‘Edox’, ‘Alkindus’, and ‘Rex.’
If you want to spice things up a bit, try planting arugula. I will never forget the first time I tried this one. The spiciness of the leaves nearly knocked my head off and I swore it off for the next three years or so. It was not until I tried some of the milder varieties did I begin to trust, and eventually enjoy, arugula. If you like the spicier versions, give ‘Wasabi’, ‘Wild Rocket’, ‘Pronto’, or just straight arugula a try. Some milder versions include ‘Astro’, ‘Surrey’, or ‘Apollo’. These milder versions are good for arugula-only salads, while the former work well in mixes. Grow arugula like you would the larger lettuces, spacing seeds 12-18 inches apart. Harvest 40-50 days after seeding.
Other greens you can try include pak choi and bok choy, chard, tatsoi, and spinach to name a few, available as individual plants or in mixes known as mesculin. These mixes come in a variety of types, including some that are formulated to be a little extra spicy. Grow mesculin mixes much like you would a salad patch, harvesting leaves a few inches from the ground.
This time of year is perfect for growing radishes, green onions, and carrots, as well as herbs like parsley, cilantro, and dill. To speed up germination of hard-coated seeds like carrots and parsley, soak in warm for 24 hours, mix with sand and seed directly into the garden. This can help germination by 1- to 2-weeks.
In order to successfully germinate and then grow lettuce and other greens, ensure that your soil is consistently and evenly moist. Prior to planting, you can incorporate some organic matter or compost to give plants an extra boost. As I mentioned earlier, succession plantings over the next few weeks will ensure that you have continual harvest for a longer period of time, or until it becomes too hot for lettuces and other cool-season greens.
For more tips on growing lettuce and information on spring gardening, contact your local office or visit http://ces.ncsu.edu, where you can post your questions via the ‘Ask an Expert’ link, or call 253-2610.