Sensational salads start with homegrown produce. Lettuce and other greens from the garden boost color and flavor at the table. And best of all, salads are flavorful, low-calorie additions to the diet.
Lettuce is a salad staple. For home gardeners, leaf lettuce is one of the easiest types to grow. You can begin harvesting outer leaves as soon as they are large enough to use by snipping individual leaves with scissors. The inner leaves will continue to grow and provide an extended harvest.
Leaf lettuces are available in a dazzling array of colors and leaf shapes, from the frilly red foliage of 'Lolla Rossa' shown here; to solid green, lobed 'Royal Oak Leaf'; to mottled bronze, burgundy, and green 'Red Sails'; and varieties that offer speckled or streaked leaves. Try growing several types to add punches of color and texture to your salads.
Considered by many to be the highest-quality lettuce type, romaine forms a loose, upright head of elongated leaves. It is also sometimes called cos lettuce, and it's the basic ingredient in Caesar salads. Green, red, or speckled varieties are available. This medium green variety is 'Parris Island Cos', an heirloom type from the 1950s.
Outer leaves of butterhead lettuce are darkly colored, and inner ones are creamy yellow and extremely mild in flavor. The plant forms a loose head that resembles a rosette. 'Bibb' and 'Buttercrunch' are two popular green varieties. 'Tom Thumb' is a dwarf type especially well suited to growing in containers.
Learn the secrets to getting homegrown greens at your fingertips with a salad container garden!
Although it's a staple commercial-salad vegetable, head lettuce is less common in home vegetable gardens. It takes longer to mature than other types of lettuce and doesn't tolerate summer heat very well. 'Summertime', pictured here, is a variety that stands up to the heat better than most.
Harvest lettuce seedlings to make your own microgreens. You can sow seeds thickly in a row, then harvest excess seedlings when they need to be thinned and use them as baby lettuce greens in salads. The small, tender leaves are a gourmet treat.
Who says you have to grow lettuce varieties separately? Sowing several types together creates your own mesclun mix, which is simply a combination of various salad greens. The Wildfire Lettuce Mix pictured here combines 'Outredgeous', 'Garrison', 'Blackjack', 'Tango', 'Royal Oak', 'Parris island', and 'Saladbowl' lettuces for a colorful salad garden in a single bed.
This combination is a zippier take on mesclun mix. It features arugula, tangy red mustard, and other Asian greens. Many seed suppliers blend custom mixes of salad greens that provide varying levels of bite, or mild flavor. Some, such as 'Provencal Winter Mix', are specially formulated for certain seasons of use.
Trendy arugula has a spicy, nutty taste. Also known as roquette or rocket salad, this cool-season green matures quickly, forming baby greens in as little as 20 days and mature heads 40 days from planting. However, it quickly declines when warm weather arrives.
'Red Giant' mustard, pictured here, is often included in mesclun mixes for its spicy flavor and rich color. Young greens are the best to use in salads. Older leaves, which have stronger flavor, are better stir-fried, steamed, or sauteed.
Deep green spinach leaves pack a potent punch of vitamins and iron. 'Oriental Giant', 'Olympia', and 'Viroflay' are examples of smooth-leaf spinach types. All grow best during cool weather.
Some varieties of spinach have deeply crinkled, or savoyed, leaves. The crinkling adds lovely texture and substance to salads. There is a drawback, though: Grains of sand on leaves are more difficult to wash out of the leaf crevices. 'Bloomsdale Long Standing' is a classic crinkle-leaf spinach variety.
Also called lamb's lettuce and mache, cornsalad has spoon-shape leaves with a mild, nutty taste. It's extremely compact, growing only 4 inches tall and wide. Cornsalad loses it nutty flavor when it matures and temperatures heat up, so harvest it during cool weather.
Most beets are grown for their earthy-flavor roots. 'Bull's Blood' is a dual-purpose variety grown as much for its intense burgundy leaves as for its deep purple roots. Beet varieties with less colorful foliage can also be harvested when young to add to salads.
Swiss chard is a close relative of the beet that can be used in salads. 'Rhubarb' chard gets its name from its bright red stalks (petioles) and leaf midribs. Chard also tastes great as a steamed vegetable. 'Bright Lights' chard produces a rainbow of colors including red, yellow, orange, and white.
Growing in the garden, radicchio looks like butterhead lettuce with a purple center. Harvest heads 80-85 days after planting when they are firm, similar to head lettuce. Overmature radicchio quickly becomes bitter, but heads harvested at proper maturity add a delightful touch of spiciness and brilliant purple color to salads.
The frilly leaves of endive are deeply cut and curled. Its flavor is more intense than that of lettuce, making a mildly bitter contrast to plain lettuce in salads. Flavor is best in cool weather and when leaves are young. This plant is different from Belgian endive, a close relative in the chicory family, which is sometimes forced indoors for winter salads.
Endive with broad, thin, smooth leaves is called escarole. 'Natacha' escarole is pictured here. Escarole tends to have more bitterness than endive. To counteract the strong flavor, cover the plants with a heavy cloth for a week or so before harvest to exclude light, a process called blanching. Harvest the blanched green leaves to use in salads.
Asian greens such as tatsoi may be used fresh in salads, stir-fried, or steamed. Often they are included in mesclun mixes. Tatsoi forms a deep green rosette with white stems. Harvest immature leaves for use in salads.
Deeply lobed and fringed mizuna is an Asian green with a mild peppery flavor. It adds texture and zing to mesclun mixes. Other common names for mizuna are Japanese mustard, spider mustard, and California peppergrass, all cues to the piquant flavor it adds to salads.
This Asian green derives its name from Mibu, in the Kyoto prefecture of Japan. Its long, narrow, dense leaves have a mild mustard flavor that is delicious in salads. Harvest baby greens in as little as 21 days from planting.
Often used as a garnish, kale can also be chopped into salads for color and texture. 'Redbor', pictured here, is particularly useful for its purple frilly leaves. Kale requires the same growing conditions as cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower.
A staple in coleslaw, cabbage is also useful for the mild flavor and crunchy texture it adds when shredded into mixed salads. Choose from green or red cabbage varieties.
The elongated head of Chinese cabbage, also known as napa cabbage, is mild in flavor and adds a delightful crunch to salads. Chinese cabbage also is great in stir-fries and other Asian dishes.
When hot weather takes a toll on cool-season salad crops, New Zealand spinach thrives. This heat lover is slow to start in spring but withstands the long, hot days of midsummer. Leaves look similar to regular spinach and have a mild flavor that doesn't turn bitter in the heat.
Another spinach substitute for hot weather, Malabar spinach is a vine with reddish-purple stems and edible rounded leaves. Grow it on a trellis to prevent it from sprawling out of control in the garden.