Creating a Living Salad Is Easy
Surprisingly, all you need is a good soil mix and seeds; the greens will do the rest.
Montclair gardener Robin Richardson uses her fingers, not scissors or clippers, to remove salad greens to prevent browning.
Photo by Lance Yamamoto
Whenever I buy lettuce or spinach, I ask myself what I’m doing. Yes, it’s convenient—but is it easier than “buying” my salad from my kitchen counter? Growing your own cut-and-come-again salad mixes is cost-effective, saves on packaging, and gives you confidence. You’ll know that you can survive just fine on Naked and Afraid, so long as you had the seed packs, water, and a container!
Surprisingly, that is just about all you need besides a very good soil mix. First, choose a container. You have perhaps noticed from the “living butter lettuce” displays (more plastic packaging) that lettuce roots don’t go deep—3 or 4 inches max. Therefore, you don’t need a deep container. But you want it to be large enough for about 2 square feet of crop (it doesn’t have to be square).
If you don’t have a 1-by-4-foot space on your counter, divide your effort with a couple of containers. You can also put one outside on a porch or create a window box.
Your container must have drainage holes or you’ll drown your lettuce roots. You need something underneath the container to catch the water if it’s in the house. Cruise your garden or hardware store, and you can easily find something that will work.
Now for the soil mix: You want a mix called potting mix, not a compost additive. It needs to be fairly light and contain nutrients. Mixes with peat moss, perlite, vermiculite, and compost are ideal. Some soils have a water-hold quality that is useful for containers since they dry out more quickly than plants in your yard. Black Gold has a mix that holds water; so do many others. Check for coir in the list of ingredients; it’s made from coconut husks and helps retain moisture. There are also crystals that hold water so roots can access it even as the surrounding soil dries out. And, of course, you can make your own mix—but whatever you do, don’t start shoveling in your yard. On its own, native garden soil is too dense for container plants.
Don’t use those seeds that Uncle Charley gifted you a few years ago. Lettuce is one of the shortest-lived seeds. Your best bet for success is to buy seeds for 2018. Mixes are great because you are not buying six or seven packets of separate seeds. Some are labeled as cutting mixes—somewhere on the package. You’ll find “cut-and-come” or “cutting”; most mesclun mixes, which contain Asian greens, arugula, and others, are also perfect for cutting. Head lettuces are not ideal; you want leaf lettuce and greens that create a leaf, such as mustard.
Mixes generally contain several colored or speckled leaf lettuces. If you get a mesclun mix, a packet of spinach, and a lettuce mix, you’ll have plenty of seeds for three seasons of salads. Renee’s Garden Seeds, Fedco, and many other excellent seed companies carry these mixes. If you want to buy individual seeds or fill out a mix with something unique, Oakland’s Kitazawa Seed Company offers wonderful varieties under the category Microgreens/Baby Leaf.
Once you get your soil into the container, water until it’s moist, not soggy. Now you’re ready to plant. Scatter the seeds on the surface—lettuce seeds do not like to be buried. You can plant the seeds close together—you’re not growing them into full-size plants but using individual leaves. You don’t need rows; I plant in semi-squares. Cover very lightly with more of the soil mix or a very fine sand. One suggestion, depending upon family size and frequency of salads, is to plant a new area in your container every week, so plant half or a third of your “farm” this first time. Using a spray laundry bottle, mist the fine cover soil until it’s evenly moist. Mist again as the top layer begins to dry. The seeds should come up quickly to create a pretty sea of green (colored lettuces usually take a bit to develop their coloring, though some are dark red from the start).
Once they’re around 3 to 6 inches tall and look scrumptious, cut the leaves above the initial seed leaves in the center. (If you cut too far down, you’ll reduce the likelihood of re-sprouting.) You can cut individual leaves or “mow” a section. Wash them lightly (you know there are no pesticides or other “ughs,” so all you need to worry about are a few crumbs of soil), shake off the water, and you’ve got a lovely mix of greens and lettuces to eat. Soon you’ll see your cut section begin to put out new leaves, and you’ll be surprised at how quickly (around three weeks) you can re-snip.
Once you get the hang of cut-and-come, you may want to experiment with other containers of braising and Asian greens for stir-fry dishes. Having fresh greens and salads easily at hand makes otherwise humdrum dishes vibrant. Try stirring greens into hot miso soup, for example, along with a beaten egg, or add your own greens to perk up Italian wedding or minestrone soups. Burgers are better with a topping of braised greens—experiments are easy when the ingredients are within reach.
As your plants slow down, you can replant several times over in your containers; take out the old plants, plump up the soil, and start anew. After the third go-round, start the process again with new soil. Depending upon your mix, you don’t need to feed your baby plants much, though they’ll appreciate a good liquid vegetative mix that encourages growth. Don’t go nuts with fertilizing—in the plant world, too much is worse than not enough.
Sharpen your scissors and enjoy.
This report was originally published in our sister publication, the East Bay Monthly.