There has been a greens revolution in American gardens over the past 20 years as once-wild or obscure salad plants have become more and more popular. Most are easy to grow, quick to yield, and tasty in the kitchen. In each case you just need to follow a few simple rules to get the best crop out of each, whether growing for now-popular micro-greens, or the more traditional mid-sized leafy greens.
Barely known outside the Italian American community a few decades ago, arugula (Eruca sativa) is now widely grown and very much in demand by salad lovers and chefs. Where once the only seed you could get was just plain arugula, there are now a number of different cultivars with different leaf shapes and more resistance to bolting (running to seed) than the wild plant from which it was domesticated. Most are grown only to the 4-6 inch size before being cut.
As with most of these fast growing members of the mustard family, you should sow the seed a quarter inch deep in short rows, 4-6 inches apart ACROSS the growing beds. This allows for easy cultivation, and allows you to control just how much matures at a given time. Greens of this are ideal for growing in temporal succession throughout the year, giving them shade during hot weather and row cover protection during cold weather. Harvest in 20-30 days just as the plants start to touch. The best method is to use scissors and cut just above the ground so you end up with clean leaves.
Mustard greens are a long standing member of traditional American gardens, but have taken on new importance with new methods of growing and harvest based on new uses. In years past mustard greens were grown to a fairly large size, like collards or chard, and then boiled as a side dish (they are still used this way, though often now sauteed). But it is the salad uses that have really changed the place of mustard in the garden. Like arugula, the past few decades have provided a huge new diversity of types, with new colors, new leaf forms and improved garden performance.
Different forms of mustard greens from around the world have been introduced to American gardens (often in response to the market demand by Asian immigrants wanting to grow their traditional crops) but the most common type used for salads is from the species Brassica juncea.
Salad Mustard can be grown all the way to harvest in containers or in the ground. Either way, sow the seed a quarter inch deep and keep it well watered. The plants do not need to be thinned in the row, and the rows need only be far enough apart to allow a hoe. In intensive beds, sow ACROSS the bed, in short rows, 4-6 inches apart. Harvest in 20-30 days just as the plants start to touch. The best method is to use scissors and cut just above the ground so you end up with clean leaves. The flavor is pungent, and in hot weather can become biting if you do not harvest in time. As soon as you see the stem starting to elongate between the leaves you have reached that point.
For the traditional American type of mustard greens grow just like Collards, but restrict your plantings to early Spring and late Fall so the plants don’t just run to seed without producing much in the way of usable boiling greens.
Cress is another crop where there is a lot of confusion between the common name(s) and the proper scientific name(s) of the plant. Broadly speaking there are three different plants that share the name: Watercress (Nasturtium officinale) is the most common, and while it is an anciently cultivated plant it is not often grown in modern gardens because of its need for water; Upland Cress is the one most frequently sold on seed racks as Cress — is a dry land plant with lobed leaves and an astringent flavor — and yet is the one with the least information available on garden cultivation; the Garden Cress we are talking about here is a fast growing annual of the species Lepidium sativum, and as with arugula and mustard there are now a wide range of varieties available.
Garden Cress can be grown to harvest in containers or in the ground. Either way, sow a quarter inch deep and keep it well watered. The plants do not need to be thinned in the row, and the rows need only be far enough apart to allow a hoe. In intensive beds, sow ACROSS the bed, in short rows, 4-6 inches apart. Harvest in 20-30 days just as the plants start to touch. The best method is to use scissors and cut just above the ground so you end up with clean leaves. The flavor is pleasantly clean and peppery, but in hot weather can become biting if you do not harvest in time. As soon as you see the stem starting to elongate between the leaves you have reached that point.
Corn Salad (Mâche)
Unlike the mustard family greens, Corn Salad (Valerianella locusta) has a very mild flavor, but like them it is a great cold season green. It is also a former wildling only recently available commercially, even though it is mentioned in gardening texts all the way back to the 16th century. It is best sown toward the end of summer, a quarter inch deep, either in short rows across the growing bed, or as an interplant with a summer crop about to be harvested. Harvest is in 50-60 days, when the plants are about 4-6 inches tall and a rosette of 8-12 leaves. If left in the row it will likely survive the winter and provide early greens until the lengthening of the day prompts it to run to seed. It makes a great salad combination with sweet onions and white beets.
There is a wide range of other plants grown for salads: Minutina (a cultivated form of the weed Plaintain), various cultivated forms of the weed Purslane and Lamb’s Quarters, Sorrel, Dandelion and wonderful cold hardy wildling, Miner’s Lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata). We sow each across the bed, in short rows, 4-6 inches apart and harvest just as the plants start to touch. The best method is to use scissors and cut just above the ground so you end up with clean leaves. In general we grow small amounts of each and combine them in a mixed salad known in Europe as mesclun.
You can also mix the seed for a number of different salad greens in whatever proportion you prefer, grow them together in a single row and harvest them together. This is a sweet and simple method for the home gardener (there are operational difficulties for commercial growers). The key to making it work is similar to that in creating good successions: sort the plants into those that grow quickly and those that don’t. Then sort them into those that like cool weather and those that can tolerate hot weather. Then plan your salads. For me, that means I plant two rows of mixed lettuce (ACROSS the bed) and then one row of each of the other mixes. If you do that every week or two you will have great salad fixings throughout the season.