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Salad leaves can include a whole range of leafy crops, to bring all kinds of flavours, textures and colours to your salads. The most obvious starting point is loose-leaf lettuces, of which there are many varieties. Then you can choose from an array of other tasty leaves ideal for growing as cut and come again salads, including rocket, land cress, lamb’s lettuce (or corn salad), cress, oriental mizuna, mibuna and pak choi, young spinach, chard and kale, spicy mustards, tangy sorrel, endives and chicory, leafy herbs and much more.
You can buy seeds of these crops individually or choose from a wide range of seed mixes. These allow you to try lots of different leaves without buying lots of packets. Some mixes are for specific seasons or year-round sowing, for certain growing locations or speedier harvests, for decorative appeal with coloured or frilly leaves, or for spicy or mild flavour combinations.
When choosing salad seeds, look in particular for varieties with an RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM), which shows they performed well in trials, so should grow well. See our list of AGM fruit and veg for recommended varieties of loose-leaf lettuces, chard, chicory, corn salad (lamb’s lettuce), endives, spinach and more.
For more veg-growing inspiration, visit any of the RHS gardens, as they all grow a wide range of salads and other quick and easy crops.
What & where to buy
Seeds are widely available from most gardening retailers all year round, either individual varieties or salad-leaf mixes.
You may also find plug plants online or in garden centres in spring and early summer, although the choice may be rather limited.
Preparing the Ground
Choose a site in full sun, with fertile, moisture-retentive soil. Take out any weeds and dig in plenty of garden compost, then firm gently. Rake the surface until fine and level, removing any large stones.
Salad leaves can also be grown in all types of containers, from patio pots to windowboxes, hanging baskets to growing bags. Larger containers are preferable – at least 30cm (1ft) wide – as the potting compost will dry out less quickly than in small ones. Fill with seed compost or multi-purpose compost, firm gently and water thoroughly before sowing.
Salad leaves are easy to grow from seed or from young bought plants. They can be grown in the ground or in containers, and take up very little space, so are particularly useful in small gardens, balconies and even windowsills. Many have decorative leaves and look great at the front of flower borders and in patio containers.
They are also ideal for sowing in any short-term gaps in your veg plot, borders or patio containers. To make good use of limited space, you can sow them among slow-growing crops too, such as parsnips and potatoes, as they will be harvested before the main crop needs the room.
For plentiful harvests all summer long, sow small batches repeatedly about a fortnight apart. Once one batch is finished, the next one will be ready to start harvesting. You should get two or three pickings from each sowing.
You can sow salad leaves indoors in small pots or modular trays from February onwards. Seedlings should appear in only a few days.
Move young plants outdoors from spring to late summer, into containers or the ground – see Planting, below.
Indoor sowing is particularly useful to get a head start in spring, before it’s warm enough to sow outdoors, or in autumn, once it’s too cold for seeds to germinate in the ground. Autumn-sown salads can be kept indoors over winter, in a greenhouse or on a sunny windowsill, or in mild regions hardy varieties can be kept under cloches or in a coldframe.
Sow seeds outdoors from mid-spring through to late summer, at a depth of 1cm (½in), in the ground or in large containers at least 30cm (1ft) wide, filled with multi-purpose compost.
You can either sow different types in individual rows or pots, or sprinkle a salad-leaf mix on a patch of soil or in a container or growing bag. Cover the seeds with 1cm (½in) of soil or potting compost and water regularly.
Also see our quick and easy container-sowing guides:
Seeds should germinate quickly, especially in warm weather, and seedlings should appear in just a few days.
Sow a small batch of salad seeds every few weeks to provide non-stop harvests.
As the seedlings grow, thin out a few to prevent overcrowding – check seed packets for recommended spacings. This will give the remaining plants more room to develop, and you can use the thinnings as baby leaves in salads.
Be sure to protect seedlings from slugs and snails, especially in damp weather.
Indoor-raised and shop-bought salad plants can be planted in their final positions, either in containers or in the ground, as soon as they’re about 10cm (4in) tall.
Acclimatise them to outdoor conditions first so they don’t suffer a check in growth.
Choose a planting site in full sun, with good fertile soil. Weed thoroughly, then dig in a generous quantity of garden compost, to help hold moisture in the soil. Alternatively, plant in large containers, at least 30cm (1ft) wide, filled with multi-purpose compost.
Space the plants about 15cm apart, depending on the variety – check seed packets or plant labels for details.
In spring, protect plants from cold by covering with cloches or fleece. In hot weather, young transplants can quickly wilt, so plant them in a cooler, lightly shaded spot, which should also deter bolting, and water regularly.
Take care to protect vulnerable young salad plants from slugs and snails.
Salad leaves need little maintenance, apart from ongoing protection from slugs and snails and regular watering to prevent drying out.
Water salad seedlings and young plants regularly until well established. Continue watering whenever the soil or potting compost starts to dry out. Young plants can quickly wilt and die in hot, dry spells.
The best time to water is early in the morning, so the plants don’t dry out during the day and can grow steadily. Avoid watering in the evening if possible, as damp conditions overnight can attract slugs and snails or fungal problems such as grey mould.
Add a thick mulch of garden compost around the plants to help to hold moisture in the soil and deter weeds.
Keep the area free of weeds, so young salad seedlings don’t get overwhelmed by vigorous weeds or have to compete for water or sunlight. To grow quickly, your salad leaves need full sun and plenty of moisture, so weeds can slow their growth.
Dense weeds can also provide hiding places for pests, such as snails, and hinder air circulation, which can lead to fungal diseases such as grey mould.
Flowering – or bolting – makes the leaves of lettuces and some other salad crops turn bitter and inedible. Hot, dry weather will often trigger premature flowering, so take care to water regularly in summer.
During the hotter months, sow them in light shade to keep them cooler.
When growing in containers in summer, move them out of the midday sun if possible and water daily, as potting compost can dry out rapidly.
Salad leaves can be ready to harvest almost all year round if you sow small batches regularly and choose suitable varieties for colder weather. Over winter, protect plants with cloches or fleece, or grow in a cold frame or greenhouse.
Start harvesting the leaves when the plants are about 8–10cm (3–4in) high, which can be just a month or so after sowing during summer or a couple of months in cooler weather. Snip off a few of the outer leaves with scissors, and more will grow from the centre, which will be ready to harvest a few weeks later. Alternatively, cut all the top growth from several plants leaving stumps 2.5cm (1in) high, which should re-sprout fresh leaves.
Pick leaves just before you want to eat them and put straight into water or a plastic bag, to stop them wilting.
They are best eaten freshly picked, but can be stored in the fridge in a polythene bag for a couple of days.
Not surprisingly, lush, tasty salad leaves are enjoyed by several pests. Principal among these are slugs and snails, but aphids, root aphids, cutworms and even sparrows can cause problems. A protective covering of fleece or insect-proof mesh can deter the latter three.
In damp, humid weather, grey mould may affect some salad leaves. Remove any faded leaves promptly and space plants widely to improve air circulation.
In hot, dry weather, some salad plants, especially lettuces, may start flowering (bolting), which turns the leaves bitter. So keep plants well watered, apply mulch and sow in light shade in summer.
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