If you’re looking for the perfect gateway into gardening or are simply a salad fiend, it’s easy to grow lettuce. Salad greens require minimal attention, deliver fast results, and a single plant can regenerate for months. Not only do leaves plucked directly from your garden taste better than store-bought, you don’t have to worry about the short shelf life of a grocery store head of lettuce or bag of greens.
There’s also the added benefit of discovering and curating a selection of your and your loved ones’ favorite varieties that you’d never find in stores and experimenting with various combinations of them. (Here’s your opportunity to add more fire to your salad bowl beyond that basic iceberg wedge.)
More great news: most salad greens are cool crops which means as the temperature dips in the coming weeks, you can start planting.
Here are some key tips to sprout some crispy, crunchy, flavorful salad greens.
Related Reading on CNET: The Best Garden & Plant Delivery Services to Try in 2020
Survey Your Soil
If you want your greens to thrive, they’re going to need a good home. That’s why University of California certified master gardener Jeff Rowe recommends that before you start planting, evaluate your soil.
“You can take a fistful of your soil, put it in an old glass container, fill it with water and shake it really thoroughly,” Rowe recommends. “Within a day, it’ll stratify.” This process will indicate whether your soil has higher levels of sand or clay.
The contents of your soil will affect how you water the lettuce. More clay retains more water (but also invites diseases like mildew and fungi). More sand requires more liquid refreshment because the water could sink past your root system.
It’s also important to find a patch of soil that receives at least six hours of direct sunlight to help your lettuce thrive.
Related Reading: How to Grow an Herb Garden, Indoors or Out
Play It Cool (But Not Too Cool)
When the temperature dips below 80F, you have the green light to start growing your leafy greens. “Even though you start them when it’s still pretty hot, they really want to mature in the cooler weather,” says Yvonne Savio, founder of the all-encompassing green thumb resource Gardening in LA.
A rise in mercury during the growing season could spell trouble. If your plant has too much fun in the sun, it will bolt, meaning it will shoot up a stalk and produce seeds, resulting in very bitter tasting, sap-filled leaves. According to Rowe, the process can happen in the span of less than a day and is irreversible once it happens, so keep an eye on your greens if things start to heat up.
As the fall progresses, cooler weather will also hamper the growth of your greens. “Don’t bother sowing something because it may rot before it germinates because it just won’t get started if it’s under that 55 degrees,” advises Savio.
Whether it’s too hot or too cold, use shade cloth to protect your greens from both the sun and a cool breeze. If you’re going through a heatwave, lightly mist the plants with water mid-day when the sun is high to help them keep cool and fool them into thinking it isn’t as hot as it actually is.
Size Isn’t Everything
Even if you’re limited to using a balcony or patio to grow your greens, that’s all the space you need. Savio recommends a pot that’s at least 12 inches deep in order to give the root system, typically around 6” deep and wide, plenty of extra room.
Rowe and his colleagues at the Grow LA Victory Garden Initiative have had success growing up to three heads of lettuce in one square foot pot, which they call their square foot garden, providing the elements of a complete mixed salad.
Related Reading: 7 Easy Tips to Start a Windowsill Garden at Home
Seeds vs. Seedlings
Rowe and Savio suggest getting a head start by planting seedlings which you can purchase from your local nursery. The investment is minimal and the benefit of having your greens ready to harvest in 40-60 days is well worth it.
Though starting from scratch doesn’t require much effort, it will take several extra weeks to germinate seeds and get them to the seedling stage. If you take this route, Savio suggests scattering the seeds about an inch apart. “You could put a piece of a cheesecloth or burlap over the whole bed so that it stays moist,” she says. “When about less than half of them have germinated and you see these little green bits coming up, that’s when you want to remove that cloth. When they’re about an inch tall, then you just gently pry it up and put it where it’s going to be maturing.”
As you begin to feel more confident in your gardening skills, you can start to retain seeds from plants you like or buy exotic varieties. “The real advantage to starting with seed, once people become a little bit more comfortable with the process, is that there are so many more varieties of greens,” says Savio.
Related Reading: How Eggshells and Coffee Grounds Can Make Your Garden Grow
Mix It Up
On the topic of varieties, both Rowe and Savio love to mix and match. “If nothing else, the appearance of your garden will look less like an industrial plot,” Rowe points out. But the benefits go way beyond the visual appeal. “The taste, appearance, and color is so different between lettuce varieties,” he adds.
And don’t be overly concerned about changing up your care regimen with a new, unfamiliar variety. Savio is quick to remind that “A lettuce is a lettuce is a lettuce, but they all take the same kind of care, and generally the germination rate for seeds are going to be about the same.”
Keep Your Lettuce Healthy
Snails and slugs are the primary culprits when it comes to lettuce theft. For an organic treatment, Rowe likes to scatter prickly liquidambar seed pods around his lettuce patch, which provide a bit of a physical barrier for the creepy crawlers. Rabbits can be a nuisance, too, and proper fencing can help keep them out.
Overwatering tends to be the underlying cause for common lettuce diseases such as powdery mildew. “It’s always better to water the plants first thing in the morning because then it has time to dry out,” advises Savio, adding, “There are diseases just floating around in the air. If they come into contact with a nice leaf that’s wet, they will start to develop the disease within hours.”
Related Reading: Get Rid of Garden Pests with These 6 All-Natural Deterrents
Rowe and Savio are both big advocates for peeling off leaves as needed—no need to pluck the whole plant. “Harvest outer leaves and let inner ones one inch in size remain to develop,” Savio says. “This enables harvesting from the same plants for up to 9 months!”
Her method is to simply snap the leaves off by hand with her finger and be sure to get it completely removed from the base. You want to avoid dead foliage stuck to the plant or scattered on the soil nearby. Both can attract unwanted pests.
Because your leafy greens are the gift that keeps on giving, Savio recommends to start planting as soon as possible so you can keep replenishing your salad bowl well beyond the new year.
Related Reading: Lettuce Tell You, Grilled Romaine Is Fantastic
Header image courtesy of Chonticha Vatpongpee / EyeEm / Getty Images