How to grow salad leaves
Discover how to grow delicious salad leaves all year round, with the help of this practical Grow Guide.
Whether you like your leaves green and crispy, red and frilly or peppery and spicy, growing from seed gives you a much wider choice than you’ll find in shop-bought ‘pillow packs’. Growing cut-and-come-again salads is fast, too – from sowing to picking takes just six weeks. And by making frequent salad sowings, you’ll have regular pickings over many months.
Growing salad leaves from seed
How to sow salad leaf seeds
Salad leaves grow well in even poor soils. However, boosting the moisture content by adding plenty of well-rotted organic matter will reduce the risk of crops running to seed in hot, dry summers (which turns the leaves bitter).
Start sowing seeds in March, as soon as the soil is workable, and continue until September (or even longer if you cover plants with a cloche or fleece and choose winter-cropping varieties). Make sowings every two weeks to ensure continuous cropping.
Prepare the seed bed by removing any weeds and stones and raking over the soil to create a fine texture. Next, make shallow drills (straight rows made by pressing a bamboo cane into the soil) about 1cm deep. Water along the drill, taking care not to collapse the sides. Sprinkle a pinch of seeds along the bottom. Cover thinly with soil or compost, and water gently.
You can grow small patches of salad leaves in any gaps in your borders among your flowers and shrubs. They also grow well in pots, boxes, trays and even guttering. Fill your container with multipurpose compost, to 2cm below the rim, and firm down. Scatter the seeds over the surface, cover lightly with compost and water well.
Caring for salad leaf crop
Don't let the soil dry out, especially during hot weather. When the plants reach about 5cm tall, mulch around them with compost to seal moisture in the soil.
How to harvest salad leaves
When large enough to handle (about 4cm tall), tease out crowded seedlings with your fingers and either eat straight away or transplant to another site to grow on. Leave 15cm between the remaining seedlings.
More like this
With cut-and-come-again varieties, you just pick a few leaves from each plant. Taking little and often will keep the plants cropping for longer. Once plants start to flower the leaves become bitter, so pull them up, chuck on the compost heap and sow more.
Storing salad leaves
Ideally, pick and eat fresh, although a bowlful of washed leaves will keep for several days in the fridge.
How to prepare and use salad leaves
Wash, shake dry and start eating. Depending on the mix of leaves and flavours, use them in salads, sandwich fillings, stir-fries and as attractive garnishes.
Salad leaves: problem solving
Try to deter slugs and snails, a number of organic methods have proved successful, such as beer traps or manual collection in the evening, you can also encourage natural predators such as toads, frogs and beetles. Cover salads with fleece to keep off flea beetles, which eat holes in the leaves, and cover young and tender seedlings with cloches.
Growing in potsIf space is limited or soil unsuitable, you can produce tasty salads by sowing seeds directly in a pot. Fill with potting compost, scatter the seeds, cover thinly and water in.
Great salad leaf varieties to grow
Look out for seed mixes and single varieties.
- Baby salad leaves mixed – a blend of lettuces in different colours, shapes and sizes
- 'Mascara' – red-edged, oak-leaf lettuce
- 'Salad Bowl' – medium-green leaves, slow to bolt
- Spicy mix – this may include varieties of pak choi, choi sum, mizuna, Greek cress and mustard
- Wild rocket – dark green leaves with a distinctive peppery taste
- Purslane – crisp leaves with a green apple taste