Anyone who has bought a bag of salad, opened it and watched it wilt in front of their eyes will know the value of fresh, tasty salad in easy-to-use portions. Cut salad has an incredibly short lifespan, and outside of the modified atmosphere of the sealed bag it wilts in minutes. Freshly cut salad leaves have an intense flavour, lots of nutritional value and it’s practically fool-proof to grow. With a high success rate, very little space required and the versatility of salad leaves there are loads of reasons to grow them.
Loose-leaf salad leaves don’t form a heart and is therefore generally grown as a “cut and come again” crop where leaves are cut as required. Sow seeds in module trays anything from 3 to 5 seeds per module is fine. If the weather is warm you may need to move the trays in to cool shed for a few days until they germinate. Seedlings are ready to plant out when they have 4 or 5 leaves. Later in the year they can be sown direct into the soil outside.
Container, bed, trug, wheelbarrow, windowbox, flower pot, salad will grow anywhere and in anything. Where ever you have a bit of space you can grow salad.
Salad leaves are a great space filler, you can pop it anywhere you have some space. Spacing is about 20 to 30cm depending on the type. Plant the seedlings well down in the soil with the seed leaves just above the soil level. Keep the soil around the plants weed-free and water copiously in dry weather, this will help prevent them bolting (going to flower). Use fleece or cloches to protect early sowings from frost. Watch out for the slugs! See our pest avoidance strategies here.
Cut leaves with a scissors as soon as they are of usable size. If you cut them about 5cm from the ground (or, as Mick would say, down to the scut) they will grow back and you will be able to take a second crop in a few weeks. Harvest lettuce leaves early in the day and they will keep far longer. This is because later in the day the moisture has evaporated from the leaves and so it wilts more quickly.
Lack of water causes the plants to panic and run to seed in a desperate attempt to reproduce before they die! This is called “bolting” and it’s very bad news as the plants are too bitter to eat. Slugs eat young leaves and aphids (black or greenfly) can be a problem. Leatherjackets (the larvae of the Daddy Longlegs) eat through the stems of newly planted lettuce.
Sow successionally, just 10 seeds or so at a time, every couple of weeks to keep a constant supply for your kitchen. Try growing summer lettuce in partial shade, they don't like hot weather.
GROW HQ Head Grower Richard Mee used to grow salad commercially and has some tips if you just want to grow them outside in spring and summer.