Words by: Justin Butts Photos by: Rachel Benavides
For flavor, crispness, health, and variety, nothing is better than a salad picked from your own garden. You can convert a sunny patch of lawn near your kitchen door to a salad garden in a single Saturday morning—then enjoy crisp greens every day. But you must plant now—lettuce grows best in the winter!
Salad Greens Grow Best in Cold Weather
Lettuce, spinach, arugula, coriander, and dill need cold weather to maximize their sugars. Frosts and freezes trigger surges in phytonutrients and sugar production in tender greens. These surges are a self-defense mechanism for the plant, but result in a maximum concentration of flavor in each bite. If tender greens are grown in the summer, they will bolt like weeds and turn bitter.
Grow your tender greens in a sunny spot that receives at least seven to eight hours of direct sunlight per day. Plant in a wide bed (four feet wide is best) in rich, well-composted, well-tilled soil.
Companion Plant Your Greens for Flavor and Pest Control
With your finger or the back of a hoe, draw parallel lines across the width of your bed about eight inches apart. Sprinkle your lettuce seeds down these rows and cover the seeds with 1/8th inch of soil. Alternate rows of spinach, arugula, coriander, and dill into your lettuce bed (two rows lettuce then one alternate). This companion planting will repel pest insects while adding wonderful flavors to your salads.
The Best Lettuce Varieties
For gorgeous greens and reds, try Bibb, black seed Simpson, red salad, Pecos romaine, rouge d’hivers, oak leaf, and buttercrunch lettuce varieties. Alternate the varieties so that each short row across the bed features a different color, flavor, and staggered harvesting.
Water your lettuce bed every few days until the plants sprout; then water about once per week until spring. Thin the lettuce and other greens to a final spacing of 8” between plants. Make sure to eat the thinnings from all these greens, they are the sweetest of the year.
Harvest in Cuttings from Sprouts to Mature Plants
As the lettuce and other greens mature, cut 1/3rd of the greens from the plants each time you harvest, leaving 2/3rds of the plant for photosynthesis to continue. The plants will quickly regrow new leaves. Your lettuce and other greens will continuously replenish themselves, giving you fresh new salads all the way into the heat of early summer.