Know Before You Grow: Lettuce and Greens

From farmers' markets and supermarkets to gourmet restaurants and backyard gardens, Leafy Greens (Lettuce, Mustard, Spinach, and Collards) are popular for their various textures, sweet or pungent flavors, beautiful colors, and nutritional value. They're versatile and fast growing, can be harvested at most any stage, are delicious raw or cooked, and in warmer climates can be grown year-round. For flavor, beauty, nutrition, and ease of cultivation, you can't beat the numerous, wonderful varieties of Lettuce and Greens!


Choosing a Variety

There's a world of terrific options when it comes to choosing which types of Lettuce and Greens to grow. These versatile veggies come in all shades of green and red, offer flavors from sweet to pungent, and provide a delightful range of textures, from crunchy to tender and smooth to frilly. And best of all, each one is easy to grow, great for beginning gardeners, and completely scrumptious!


When to Start

Lettuce and Greens are best started outdoors as soon as the soil can be worked in early spring or late summer (for a fall crop). For those living in zones 8 and warmer, sow your seeds in early fall for a winter harvest.

As long as the temperature stays below 80 degrees F, you can keep making successive sowings -- every two weeks is typical -- to extend your harvest. As summer approaches, however, you will want to plant varieties that tolerate heat and resist bolting (producing flowers and seeds too soon).

If you choose to sow your seeds indoors, do so 4 weeks before planting out, at a temperature of 65 to 68 degrees F. Expect germination in 7 to 10 days.


How to Start

Leafy Greens prefer fertile, well-drained soil, so before planting add compost or manure. This will provide important nutrients and improve drainage.

They will produce in light shade but grow the best in areas with full sun exposure.

Seeds should be scattered in a row and covered lightly with soil. Keep the soil moist until they germinate.


Special Considerations

  • Leafy Greens can be harvested at almost any stage of growth. If you want“baby ”Greens, pick the leaves after 3 or 4 weeks of growth.
  • If growing your plants to full size, adequate spacing is essential. There needs to be 8 to 10 inches between mature plants.

  • Lettuce and Greens will often bolt if the temperatures get too high. If this happens, remove and compost the plant, as the leaves will be bitter and inedible.

Growing Tips

  • Thin crowded seedlings once the seeds germinate and begin to grow. Just pinch them at the base of the stem or snip them with scissors. Don't throw them away, though, as these thinnings are quite good in salads and sandwiches.
  • Pots and containers are an excellent way to grow your Leafy Greens. Containers need to be at least 4 to 6 inches deep. Use a soilless medium, checking it every day to be sure it hasn't dried out. Water as needed.
  • When harvesting you can take the entire plant or remove only the amount of leaves you want. Take those at the base of the plant, starting with the outer ones. New leaves will continue to grow from the center.
  • If you're harvesting the whole plant remove it by pulling it out of the ground or by cutting it off at ground level.
  • Although Leafy Greens are best eaten fresh they can be stored in your refrigerator's vegetable crisper for a day or two. Some can be kept a bit longer -- Lettuce, Collards, and Mustard Greens tend to stay fresh from 3 days to a week.
  • Store your Leafy Greens in a plastic bag after removing any soil or damaged leaves. Wash thoroughly with cold water before eating.

Pests and Problems to Watch For

  • Lettuce and Greens don't tend to have problems with pests as they grow quickly, often in cooler weather when insects are less likely to be active. You still need to regularly check them for pests, however, to prevent a small problem from becoming a disaster.
  • Do not use chemical pesticides since you will be eating the leaves. Instead, remove pests with your hands or wash them off with a stream of water.
  • Encourage the presence of beneficial bugs such as ladybugs, lacewings, and other“good bugs ”that prey on aphids and mites.
  • Grow your Leafy Greens in well-drained, fertile soil, and allow good spacing. This will prevent most diseases.
  • Spinach can be susceptible to downy mildew (Blue mold). This is a fungal disease that produces slightly yellow lesions on the top of the leaves and purplish sporulation (small spores) on the underside. The best way to prevent this is to space the plants far enough apart they receive good air circulation, and when watering, wet the ground not the foliage.
  • Rotate your Spinach crops each year to prevent soil-borne diseases.

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