Growing leafy greens such as lettuce, rocket, and parsley for salads is one of the easiest and most rewarding gardening jobs. Because you’re harvesting foliage, it’s generally quick for the crop to reach the first picking stage. In addition, leaves tend to be less prone to pests and diseases than most other edible plants, as you can always harvest them as young, tender leaves before they have a chance to get damaged.
The key to growing edible foliage is to plant a variety of types so you’ll always have something on hand to pull together a salad at any time of year. You can readily grow most types from seed, which you can plant directly into the soil in your vegetable-garden bed. Similarly, the growing conditions are essentially the same for all of these plants, with a well-drained soil and plenty of sunshine promoting the best harvest. An ideal way of providing these conditions is to grow your plants in a sunny garden bed or in large pots on a deck or balcony in soil or general-purpose potting mix that is enriched with a complete fertiliser.
Another key to growing leafy greens is to ensure they always have good nutrition, so it’s a good idea to supplement fertiliser with liquid feeding. A general-purpose liquid food or liquid from a worm farm will keep your plants in constant production. It’s also good practice to continually harvest each week, as old foliage can become bitter tasting; constant picking stimulates the production of fresh new leaves.
The best & brightest
You can easily grow a number of lettuce varieties from seed. The most familiar is iceberg, with its tightly packed foliage that results in a ball-shaped plant. Oak-leaf types have a much looser growth pattern, with wavy leaves that come in colourful red, bronze, or green, adding a nice ornamental touch to your garden. Avoid growing lettuce through the hottest months of summer, as it produces flower stems, and the leaves become bitter and unpalatable.
Also, avoid growing it in the frosty conditions in winter.
English spinach is another versatile leafy green that’s at home in a salad or as a boiled vegetable. To keep a good supply coming for your summer salads, sow seed directly into the garden every few weeks from spring to summer. The young developing leaves are the best to harvest for your salad bowl.
Many consider beetroot to be an integral part of the antipodean hamburger. However, the young, tender leaves of beetroot can add a really crunchy texture to your salads throughout the year. Sow seed in any month to produce foliage, and through the warmer months, you can leave the plants to produce the familiar root crop.
More salad starters
Chives are members of the onion and garlic family, but instead of harvesting the bulbs, you use the tangy leaves as a garnish or to add zest to salads that require an onion-like flavour. Plants form masses of tiny bulbs that you can split up by hand to produce new clumps. To harvest, simply snip off the leaves at the base, which stimulates more to regrow.
Parsley is another extremely rewarding leafy green to grow; you can easily raise it from seed, and it continues to produce throughout the year. There are two types of parsley: curly and Italian. Both are useful for salads. The bright green, textured foliage of curly parsley also looks very ornamental in the garden when you mix it in with flowering plants.
You can use every part of the coriander plant in various recipes. A small number of leaves impart wonderful flavour to salads, and you can use the roots in stir-fries and other recipes. Coriander is a fast-growing plant that you need to replace with fresh seedlings every couple of months. If you wish to have a continuous supply, sow a fresh batch of seed directly into the garden.
It’s best to grow all of the aforementioned herbs in large pots in either full sun or part shade in an all-purpose potting mix. Fertilise them in early spring and again in midsummer with a couple of teaspoons of general-purpose slow-release fertiliser. Harvesting them for the kitchen is a simple matter of pinching out the top few centimetres of the growing tips. This, in turn, causes the plant to branch out so that within a couple of weeks, ever-more-succulent new shoot tips are ready for you!
The range of leafy greens available to the home gardener seems to be constantly increasing, as more edible foliage becomes available from seed merchants. If you’re feeling adventurous, look out for other unusual-flavoured foliage, such as mizuna, rocket, chicory, fennel, French sorrel, radicchio, and mustard.