If you are a Michigan gardener that is eager to plant in the spring why not start with salad greens? There is nothing tastier than a salad straight from the garden. Salad greens can be planted early, while the soil is still cool. They are easy and quick to grow and take up little space. Salad greens are also an excellent beginning gardening project for children.
Types of greens
Great salad greens include more than iceburg or head lettuce. In fact, any other type of greens will give you more taste and nutrition and are easier for home gardeners to grow. A mixture of greens including lettuces is often called a mesclun mix. You can buy pre-mixed mesclun greens or mix your own with seeds from things you like.
Easiest of all greens to grow is leaf lettuce. Leaf lettuce grows as single leaves on a stem and does not curl into a head. It comes in various shades of green and red. Some leaf lettuce has flat leaves but there are also frilly leaved and lobed leaf varieties. Leaf lettuce can be planted outside a month before the last frost is expected and will be ready to harvest in as little as a month. Leaf lettuce is more nutritiousthan head lettuce, but the taste is a little different.
Butterhead lettuce has leaves curled into loose heads. The individual leaves are somewhat thicker than leaf lettuce. They can be solid green or tinged with red. The flavor is mild and crisp.
Romaine or cos lettuce has leaves that grow more upright, with a heavier rib to each leaf. The leaves in the center of the lettuce clump blanch to a creamy yellow. They are excellent for Caesar salad.
Head lettuce or iceburg lettuce is the lettuce most familiar to people but the hardest lettuce for home gardeners to grow. It makes round heads of pale green and yellow with a very mild taste. It is low in nutrition compared to other greens. Head lettuce needs a long season of cool days to make mild flavored heads.
Spinach is another easy to grow green for salads. There are several types of spinach. The oriental types have arrow shaped leaves. Conventional spinach comes in flat leaf and savoy varieties. Savoyed leaves are deeply quilted or crinkled. New Zealand Spinach is not true spinach, but very close in taste and it grows better in warm periods.
Both beets and turnips have greens that are very tasty in salad. You can use whole baby plants you have thinned from the rows or pinch off leaves from plants you intend to eat the roots of later. There are also varieties of beets and turnips that are grown primarily for the leaves that don’t form large roots.
Escarole/ endive have leaves similar to lettuce but thicker. The taste is a little stronger. Escarole tolerates both heat and cold. Mustard comes in plain and frilly leaved varieties.
Other greens include cress, chicory, arugula, purslane, pak choi, orach and sorrel.
Most salad greens like to grow in the cooler times of the year and benefit from early spring or fall planting. They tolerate frost quite well. Full sun is best in spring and fall but in the heat of summer an area that is shaded in the middle of the day would be ideal.
Most greens should be sown directly where you want them to grow. Firmly press lettuce seed down on the soil but don’t cover it, it needs light to germinate. Cover the seed of other greens lightly. Keep your greens moist until they germinate and keep them well watered while growing. You may want to start the seeds of head lettuce inside and transfer plants outside.
Greens should be sown in small quantities at three week intervals so you don’t have too much to harvest at a time. They don’t take long to grow so they could be sown early where you will plant warm weather crops later. They can also be sown between slow growing crops.
Greens appreciate nitrogen fertilizers. A fertilizer for grass, with high nitrogen content but no weed killers will really give them a boost. You can also use a garden fertilizer at planting.
Flea beetles, tiny black bugs that eat holes in the leaves and end up in your salad, are often a problem in plantings of greens. The good news is that greens don’t need pollination to produce a crop so they can be covered to keep out bugs. Use a really lightweight spun row cover and make sure it is well anchored at the ground.
Slugs and snails can also be a problem in plantings of greens. You can cover the soil around the plants with a layer of diatomaceous earth or sand which often helps. Raised beds or containers will also help. Row covers don’t keep out slugs and snails all the time, but may help.
Pick the leaves of all greens when they are small and sweet. As they get older they get tougher and bitter. Keep the plants from going to seed as this tends to make the greens taste bitter also. If you see the plant putting out a long, narrow stalk it is a flower stalk and it should be snapped off.
Head, romaine and butterhead lettuces are usually harvested as whole plants. You can cut or pick leaves off leaf lettuce, spinach, kale, turnips, beets, mustard, escarole and the plants will keep producing more leaves. If you want the roots of turnips and beets to develop then only harvest a few leaves from each plant.