growing greens: a beginner's guide

friends! as you all know, my cute farmer is sharing his knowledge of gardening throughout the summer on my blog! join us as he talks about greens today! yay!

Greens such as lettuce, spinach, mustards, and arugula are some of the easiest garden crops to grow. Their fast growth and short time from seed to harvest make them an easy choice for a garden that is tight on space. Also, most greens can perform well in partial shade, which is a plus for urban gardeners who don’t get a lot of sun.

1. Lettuce
It’s hard to buy grocery store salad mix after getting used to garden-fresh lettuce. This is one crop we try to keep in the garden as year-round as possible. Lettuce performs best for us in the spring and fall, having a hard time during the heat of our Southern summers. The earliest I will plant lettuce is the first week of March, though I may need to bring out the row cover if we get a late freeze in April.

When it comes to selecting the right lettuce variety, you have to make one key decision—head lettuce or leaf lettuce? Think of how you like to buy your lettuce from the store. Do you buy it as a head or do you like to buy the box of pre-washed spring mix? We usually plant a mix of both in our garden for the variety.

2. Head Lettuce
Our favorite lettuce variety right now is butterhead (‘Nancy’ from Johnny’s has been superb). As a head lettuce, I will grow the plants out in the greenhouse and transplant them into the garden when they are 3-4 inches tall. I space them 12 inches apart in the bed, fitting 3 rows in a bed that is 36 inches wide. This lettuce is grown until it forms a tight head and then the whole plant is harvested at once. Usually 45-55 days from planting to harvest.

3. Leaf Lettuce
Although leaf lettuce can be grown as an individual plant and harvested all at once like head lettuce, we like to use the “cut-and-come-again” method. This involves planting the seeds as a 2-4 inch wide “band” or broadcasting the seeds over the entire width of the bed and harvesting the leaves when they are 3-6 inches tall. The nice thing about this method is that the leaves will grow back allowing you to make 2-3 cuttings per planting. This is a great way to harvest an instant salad. All you have to do is bring the leaves in and wash. Johnny’s sells some great lettuce mixes for this kind of planting (like the Allstar Gourmet Mix).

4. Spinach
Like lettuce, spinach can either be transplanted or directly sown. I’ve started growing spinach transplants so that we have a more consistent stand. This is more time-consuming than direct seeding, but makes better use of the garden space. The key to growing good spinach is planting at the right time. In our area spinach is planted in the early fall or spring. Spinach seed requires soil temperatures in the range of 65-80 degrees for consistent germination, which can be difficult. Soils may be too cold in the spring and too hot in late summer. I avoid this issue by starting my seeds in the greenhouse, which is consistently 70-80 degrees. As transplants, spinach is spaced 6 inches apart with 4 rows fitting a 36-inch wide bed. For baby spinach, you can directly seed at a closer spacing and make multiple harvests. At our spacing we will harvest only the largest leaves, allowing the plants to continue growing and setting new leaves. We really like the variety ‘Space,’ which sets smooth, richly-flavored leaves.

5. Mustards and Arugula
These greens are the easiest to grow of the bunch. Their small, round seeds germinate quickly in a wide range of soil temperatures and the seedlings hit the ground running. There is a wide range of mustard greens to choose from, but most of them have a spicy kick that can really make a salad spectacular. We usually plant a few rows of arugula and a few rows of our favorite greens mix (Premium Greens Mix from Johnny’s).  We plant in rows at 4 rows to a bed and harvest as cut-and-come-again. It only takes 20-30 days for these greens to be ready to harvest and they are a great compliment to a mild-flavored lettuce. Mustards are also able to tolerate the summer heat, making them a great green to plant in succession (every 2-4 weeks) all season long.

6. Container Gardening
All of these greens are great for container gardening if you are limited on space. As long as you have 4-6 hours of light exposure your greens will grow just fine. And because greens are shallow-rooted, you don’t need a deep pot. I recommend growing in a fertilized soil-less media (i.e. potting soil), so you don’t have to mess with fertilizers. But if you are adding fertilizer to the media, you won’t need much. A good multi-purpose organic fertilizer is liquid fish, which can be mixed in a watering can (1 oz per gal) and watered in as needed after the greens start growing. To plant simply scatter your seeds over the surface of the media and cover lightly with new potting mix. Keep the soil moist and you should have germination in a few days. Wait a month and you’ll have fresh greens to harvest from your patio.

Greens are such a rewarding garden crop. If any of this sounds too complicated or confusing, just take a handful of seeds (lettuce or mustards), scatter them over your garden bed, scratch them in with a rake, and water. In a week you should have a nice patch of greens coming up. Then just take the scissors out to the garden whenever you’re in the mood for a salad.

- Luke

p.s. check out luke's post on planting potatoes!


Rhyea said...

Hi! I'm loving these posts. I'm fairly new to Bentonville and very new to gardening. I planted some tomatoes, peppers, herbs and strawberries in containers about six weeks ago and am encouraged. Everything looks great except the berries (something destroyed them). Now I really want to plant some greens. Is it too late? I can't find any plants so would have to start from seed. Thanks! BTW: you guys are totally living my dream :)

Anonymous said...

Great post! One question though....I'm assuming that you planted all your head lettuce at the same time, and it's therefore all ready at the same time. I'm not sure what is do with several heads of lettuce at once or how I'd store it! Do you give a lot of it away or sell it?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing! I grow leaf lettuce as well. I planted them quite densely and then pulled out those plants that stood too tight ... Now they have about 10 cm in between. What do you think? Is that too much? I wasn't sure ...
Yours, Simone

lisa said...

Thanks for this great post! Looking forward to more gardening posts! Your greens look so nice and fresh I want to bite into my pad :)

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