How to grow Salad Leaves
Salad Leaves Growing Guide
Feeling impatient? Quick-growing cut-and-come-again salads can be raised just about anywhere and will give you a crop in as little as three weeks!
How to grow Salad Leaves
How to grow Salad Leaves
It’s exceptionally easy and quick to grow your own lettuce leaves from seed, saving you money and ensuring you only pick what you want, when you want it. These nutritious greens have really captured the home-grower’s imagination, and today there are countless mixes and different types of salad leaves to try.
The thrill of growing salad leaves is the speed and ease with which they mature; the fastest can be picked within just three weeks of sowing. They may be raised in the open ground, used to make attractive edgings to borders or decorative potagers, or grown in containers, where they will take up very little room.
Most are cultivated for cut-and-come-again crops, whereby one sowing gives rise to several harvests through repeat cuttings of the same plants. These convenient crops should form the bedrock of any salad or stir-fry veg patch. Quick, very straightforward, and able to grow just about anywhere – you really can have the best of everything!
Growing Salad Leaves month-by-month
Keep picking delicious winter salads. Prepare outdoor ground by digging in plenty of organic matter to improve drainage and moisture retention.
Finish preparing the ground for the very first sowing of the year next month. Work in some general-purpose organic fertiliser.
Start growing lettuce indoors by sowing in the greenhouse in pots or border soil; or outside under cloches to protect the young seedlings from cold.
By mid April cloches are unnecessary, and the main sowings of salad leaves can commence. Sow in drills 20-30cm apart or broadcast seed thinly.
Salad leaves will be growing at their fastest rate thanks to the gentle warmth of late spring. Sow every three weeks for a continual supply.
The longest days of the year see rapid growth. Keep plants well watered and feed them regularly with a liquid seaweed manure.
This month is, as a general rule, the hottest one of the year – and this means things can begin to slow down due to the heat. Sow your salad leaves in the shade where it's cooler.
Keep on sowing summer salad leaves, including cut-and-come-again varieties. These will be ready before autumn.
The final sowings of summer leaves occurs this month, while autumn-sowings of Oriental salads such as mizuna can begin.
Make the last outdoor sowing before winter arrives. Cover rows over with cloches when colder weather approaches, to protect vulnerable growers.
A late-season sowing can be made early on in the month, under cover. Maximise light levels by cleaning greenhouse glass.
Winter salads will still grow in any mild weather but pickings are likely to be sporadic. Nevertheless, a salad can still be enjoyed!
How to grow Salad Leaves from seed
With so many different types of lettuce and salad leaf, sowing instructions will vary, so always check the back of seed packets to see what’s recommended. In almost all cases, however, sowings can be made by marking out 1cm-deep drills spaced 20-30cm apart into prepared soil with a cane.
Tip seed very thinly into the bottom of the drill and then cover back over with the growing medium. Seeds may also be broadcast sown by scattering them thinly and evenly over the surface of the ground to create a spread. This is a particularly useful method of sowing into pots, where access between rows is unnecessary.
When to plant lettuce in the UK
The earliest sowings can be made in March, but these will need to take place under cloches, where the extra degree or two of warmth will ensure speedier germination. The final sowing can be made in early autumn, again under cover, to guard against the onset of inclement weather. Suitable autumn-sown leaves include many of the Oriental salads, which can quickly run to seed earlier in the summer. Go for hardy types such as mizuna, land cress or rocket.
Caring for your Salad Leaves plants + problems
How long does lettuce take to grow?
Salad leaves can be ready in just a few weeks given good growing conditions. And the beauty is that because they grow quickly and remain short, this opens up numerous possibilities of where to sow them. Colourful mixes make attractive edgings, or sow between slower-growing crops such as parsnip for a sneaky intercrop.
These attractive plants really look the business sown into old Belfast sinks, redundant wellies or quirky containers made from recycled materials such as vegetable crates. You can also sow them into grow bags – this is a great way to use up any remaining goodness left after you’ve disposed of your summer tomatoes.
How much room does lettuce need to grow?
Salad leaves will germinate in as few as three or four days. If you have sown them sparingly enough they shouldn’t need thinning, but if it looks like they are going to be overcrowded, pull out some of the lettuce seedlings to give the others more room to expand.
Don’t throw away these thinnings – they’re your first nutritious crop, so tuck in! Again, be guided by the seed packet instructions.
As soon as the spring weather warms up any cloches can be removed. This is normally around early to mid April, depending on the progress of the season. For a continual supply of fresh and tasty salad leaves you will need to sow every three weeks.
The best time to plant lettuce isn’t in one go at the start of the season. It’s far better to scatter seeds little and often – plants will give a few pickings but will eventually grow taller to flower, so it’s necessary to always have new ones on the go.
At any one time there should be salad leaves ready for picking, some recovering from a previous harvest, and others recently sown.
How to keep lettuce growing
You will find it genuinely difficult to fail with salad leaves, which is why they are so often recommended as the perfect beginner’s crop.
To get the leaves to grow quickly, however, it is essential that the soil never dries out as this can cause the plant to go to seed. Tough, bitter leaves are what you will pick from flowering salads, so keep rows well watered
Water crops in the early evening when evaporation rates are low but while there are still a few hours of sunlight left so that plants can dry off a bit before sunset (moist, succulent leaves are the nocturnal slug’s dream!) Keep beds weed-free by regular hand weeding or hoeing.
As with any cut-and-come-again vegetables, repeated picking of leaves can take its toll on nutrient levels within the soil or compost. This is particularly acute when growing lettuce in containers, so top them up by giving plants a drenching of a liquid feed, such as dilute seaweed concentrate every week or two to boost salad leaves.
Growing salad leaves in containers
Salad leaves are the best edibles to raise if you only have a balcony or even no outside space at all, and window boxes are easy to prepare. Start by making sure that your container has enough drainage holes.
Now fill the base with a 2-3cm layer of drainage material such as stones or gravel, and top up with multipurpose compost. Fill to within 2cm of the rim, firm down, then sow seed thinly before covering it over with a 1cm layer of finely sieved compost. Gently water the growing medium, and keep it moist at all times.
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How to harvest Salad Leaves
Picking salad leaves may seem like a fairly obvious operation, but it’s the cutting lettuce from the garden that many eager gardeners get wrong.
To encourage repeat harvests from a cut-and-come-again crop you will need to preserve the central growing point of the salad plant. There are two ways to do this: by snipping along the row or over the patch to ‘carpet harvest’ your leaves, or by selecting just one or two of the biggest leaves from each lettuce plant, working your way along the rows to leave the majority of each one intact.
In the former instance make a cut at least 2cm above soil or compost level to preserve the central growing point, from where the next batch of leaves will emerge. Water and liquid feed after cutting this way to stimulate new leaf production.
Selective harvesting of leaves is a good technique where space is limited and you haven’t got a large crop to play with. Cut them away as soon as they reach three to 10cm tall, taking them from the outside of the plant to leave the central rosette of foliage in place.
These will in turn become the outside leaves as more growth appears in the centre of each plant. Careful harvesting will see at least three or four cuts possible – and likely many more. Always use a sharp knife or pair of scissors for the job.
How to keep salad leaves fresh in the fridge
Salads are best eaten fresh, when you will get the most benefit from the nutrients contained within the leaves. They will, however, keep fresh and crisp for a few days in a grocery bag, misted with a little water, in the fridge. Tougher pickings can be added at the very last minute to stir-fries for a splash of colour.
Varieties of Salad Leaves
Salad Leaves varieties to try
Leaf salad leaves ‘Italian Mix’
Tasty and ready in just three weeks, this herby mix includes basil, dandelion, cress, mustard ruby streaks and wild rocket.
Spinach ‘Fiorano’ F1
Smooth, subtle baby spinach leaves make the ideal salad base ingredient. This variety is resistant to downy mildew, and slow to bolt.
Salad Leaves 'Cut 'n' Come Again'
Speedy mixture that is ideal for sowing in containers outdoors throughout summer, or growing indoors on a windowsill during winter months. Mix contains: mizuna, salad rocket, red mustard, pak choi, red Russian kale, golden yellow Chinese cabbage.
Lettuce ‘Salad Bowl’
Versatile and fast growing lettuce that does not heart up and is slow to bolt. Can be picked young as baby leaves for cut and come again salad crops or as attractive mature lettuces.