How to Grow Salad Greens
Plant seeds in the earliest days of spring, and you’ll have the makings for fresh salads in summer.
The Four Categories
The most famous variety (some chefs might say the most infamous) is iceberg, the tight, crunchy head you have probably eaten as a wedge, slathered with Russian dressing. Although iceberg isn't as popular as it used to be, it is still the number-one seller in American supermarkets, and there's nothing like it for giving a tuna-salad sandwich some snap.
Growing tip: Of the four types of lettuce, crisphead is the most sensitive to heat. Without the right cool temperatures, the plants won't form the proper tight shape.
Other varieties: Wakefield Crunch and New York.
If crisphead varieties are the tap water of the lettuce world, then butterheads, also known as Bibb lettuces, are the Evian. As the name suggests, their leaves are soft, tender, and slightly richer in flavor.
Harvesting tip: Because their oval leaves are so bruisable, butterheads are ideal for the home gardener, who can show them more mercy than produce shippers can.
Other varieties: Boston, Little Gem, and Buttercrunch.
This variety includes that staple of the Caesar salad, romaine. Cos lettuce has a long, upright head and leaves with crunchy spines and a sharp flavor.
Serving tip: Its texture makes Cos an ideal partner for limper, hard-to-fork baby lettuces and greens.
Other varieties: Rouge d'Hiver, Cimmaron, and Paris White.
- Loose Leaf
These lettuces branch off from a single stalk. This means you can harvest a few leaves at a time while the plant continues to grow (head lettuce is an all-or-nothing proposition). Most grocery stores now sell bags of mesclun salad consisting of leaf greens, and many gardening catalogs sell mesclun seed packs: You sow the seeds, wait a few weeks, and see what comes up.
Growing tip: Because they don't form a head, loose leafs can tolerate warmer weather better than some of the other families, but they, too, grow bitter in the heat.
Other varieties: Arugula (also known as rocket, and not technically a lettuce), red leaf, frisee, and Black-Seeded Simpson.
Choosing a Crop
For some armchair gardeners, the fun lies in studying seed catalogs. There is also a boundless variety of seeds available to home gardeners through nurseries, hardware stores, and the Internet. Consider the flavor descriptions and growing times when deciding which to plant. Look for heat- or cold-resistant varieties to suit your climate.
Slugs and snails can make lettuce look like lace, but don't fight them with pesticides. Though slugs love lettuce, they like beer more. Set shallow containers of beer around the garden the slugs will slither in and drown. If necessary, protect lettuce from rabbits, deer, and other animal intruders by using fences, chicken wire, or all-purpose garden fabric ($10 to $19, gardeners.com).