Salad leaves have to be one of the most rewarding things to grow in a garden. As summer approaches there is nothing more satisfying than going out into the garden to harvest a selection of fresh crisp lettuce leaves which can be ready to eat in minutes. In fact my first growing success was a packet of mixed lettuce leaf seeds – it was so easy to do that I started to grow tomatoes and soon got hooked by vegetable gardening. Now, several years on, I thought I would round up my favourite ways of growing salad and why I like to grow it...
Salad is worth growing for many reasons:
- Cost: A single bag of mixed salad leaves at the supermarket costs about the same as a packet of mixed lettuce seeds and some compost. Just add some containers and water and you are practically printing money!
- Time: Salad is quick to grow (often just four or five weeks), largely pest-free and just requires watering regularly in hot weather – so simple.
- Flavour: Not only does fresh lettuce taste so much better than the pre-packed specimens on supermarket shelves but you get to choose your favourite types to grow.
- Health: Supermarket salad is often washed in chlorine solutions (at much higher concentrations than those found in swimming pools) and the bags are filled with nitrogen to make the lettuce appear fresh for much longer than is the case.
- Organic Principles: Salad crops are sprayed more than any other vegetable – averaging 11 pesticide treatments per year. Yet good organic lettuce is not always available with only a small selection of bland headed lettuce available in most supermarkets. The solution is clearly to grow your own and guarantee that it’s pesticide-free.
- World Water Supply: According to a shocking article in the Independent newspaper, a small salad bag can use almost 50 litres of water to produce, often in developing countries such as Kenya where such water is already in short supply. This siphoning off of water for cash crops such as salad destroys the livelihood of others downstream who depend on the same water sources.
I have been harvesting a great range of lettuce leaves for about three weeks now (as pictured above) and thought I would pass on the best methods that work for me:
- For early and late crops I start the seeds off in small trays of compost in the greenhouse or on a windowsill. Lettuce actually doesn’t germinate at high temperatures, so this isn’t necessary in the summer but it does give me a head-start in spring.
- I transplant the lettuce seedlings into their final growing positions when they are a few centimetres high, usually with about four or five small leaves. Many people advise against transplanting lettuce as it doesn’t like to be moved but I have found that at this early stage the seedlings do quite well. I just make sure that as much of the root system as possible together with surrounding compost is taken with the seedling to its new position and it is kept well watered.
- I like to grow lettuces in large terracotta pots outside my kitchen door. That way they are easy to water and available to pick when I need them. This method of growing lettuce above ground level has really beaten the slugs that used to plague my salad-growing efforts and I haven’t had a single plant damaged this year. For the details, take a look at my GrowBlog article on beating slugs and snails.
- Just before the first lettuce is ready for picking I make sure that another batch has been sown in trays to keep a continuous supply
- My favourite varieties are loose-leaf lettuce such as the oak-leaf types, ‘salad bowl’, Batavian and a wonderful red-tinged leaf that has self-seeded around my garden for several years now making an easy inter-crop between larger plants. But for the beginner I would just recommend a packet of mixed leaves – you soon get to know your favourites. These loose leaf lettuces make excellent cut-and-come-again crops that can be harvested by taking a few leaves at a time over a period of several weeks.
- Other quick salad crops that add to the taste are radishes (which need to be sown every 10 days or so) and spring onions (which take more time and patience). Rocket leaves are a great crop for a shady spot in the garden and grow well into colder months.
In fact, the more I think about it, the more it seems strange that lettuce isn’t more widely grown. It really makes the perfect crop for first-time gardeners and the range of varieties available can keep even the experienced gardener trying something new each year. So if you’re not already growing some, then why not give it a go and if you are, then do share what varieties and techniques work well for you by adding a comment below.