A fresh salad straight out of the garden is one of the first joys of the spring season that gardeners can look forward to each year. Most greens are quick growing and easy to take care of, and reward us with great nutrition and zesty flavor. Once you grow your own salads, you’ll find it hard to go back to grocery store greens. Fresh-picked tastes better, and lasts longer in the fridge than the stuff in a package that probably traveled across the country before it got to your local store. We put together a list of some of the best kinds of salad greens to grow at home. We’ll start with the familiar mainstays that you probably know from the average American grocery store, and get to more unique and interesting options as we go down the list.
Varieties of Lettuce and Salad Greens
1. Iceberg Lettuce
Don’t roll your eyes. There may be more worldly and refined greens out there, but let’s face it, there’s nothing like the crunch of simple, crisp, refreshing Iceberg lettuce in a chopped salad, or a classic wedge drizzled in creamy dressing. And luckily, what we were all told about it having no nutritional value simply isn’t true! Iceberg lettuce is actually high in vitamins A and K, and folate.
How to Grow Iceberg Lettuce
Direct seed or transplant into well amended, loose soil after danger of frost has passed. Iceberg lettuce takes about 70 days to mature, and will need about 12 inches of space between plants to allow room for it to form its signature round head of tightly packed leaves. Harvest whole heads by cutting just above the base of the plant, and remove the loose outer leaves, which are the oldest and usually a bit more tough and bitter.
Also Known As:
- Crisphead lettuce
2. Butterhead Lettuce
Butterhead lettuces form heads with beautiful ruffled leaves on the outside and tighter-packed blanched hearts within. They are known for their delicate leaves with a sweet and “buttery” flavor, and make an absolutely divine base for a salad. Most butterhead varieties are green, such as Buttercrunch, Key Lime, or Kagraner Sommer, but some come in red like Merveille Four Seasons, or even red speckled, like our Speckled Amish Butterhead.
How to Grow Butterhead Lettuce
Like all lettuce, Butterhead types prefer loose, well drained, and fertile soil, and should be direct-sown or transplanted after the danger of frost has passed. There is a Butterhead type for every seasonal niche. Speckled Amish will do well in the cool shoulder seasons, while Buttercrunch and Kagraner Sommer are known for being slower to bolt in hot weather. As for the French heirloom Merveille Four Seasons, (or “Marvel of Four Seasons”) the name says it all - it thrives in cool weather, and holds through heat as well. Butterhead type lettuces take anywhere from about 50 to 70 days to harvest, and require about 10 inches of space between plants.
Also Known As:
- Bibb lettuce
- Boston lettuce
Long, sturdy leaves with thick, crunchy white midribs are the signature characteristics of romaine lettuce. You probably know it as the gold standard for a caesar salad, as its mildly bitter flavor perfectly balances creamy dressing. Romaine has a well deserved reputation as a healthy lettuce choice, since its dark green leaves are packed with antioxidants. Extend your romaine lettuce harvest into summer with heat-tolerant varieties like Parris Island and Jericho, or add some playful color to your salad with red-splashed Freckles. Rouge d’Hiver offers beautiful deep red leaves during the cool season.
How to Grow Romaine Lettuce
Romaine lettuce will form tall, vase shaped heads. The head can be harvested whole, or if you want to keep your plants producing longer, you can snap off individual leaves from the outside of the plant and leave the center, the same way many people harvest kale. Some romaine varieties are fairly heat tolerant, and a little shade and extra water can give the plants extra help to prevent bolting as the weather warms up. Romaine lettuces take about 60 to 70 days to mature, and need about 10 inches of space between plants.
Also Known As:
- Cos lettuce
4. Looseleaf Lettuce
Looseleaf lettuce varieties have a more sprawling, open growth habit, instead of forming a tight, compact head. They can be grown for a full sized head, but are also often harvested as baby leaves. Looseleaf type lettuces come in all shades of green to red and a wide array of leaf shapes. Lolla Rossa Dark, one of several “Lollo” lettuces named for an Italian actress with signature tousled short hair, has frilly, deep red leaves perfect for catching dressing in a salad or adding a flourish to a burger. Tango offers similar frills in brilliant green. Green Oakleaf and Italienischer add interest to a salad with distinctive narrow, lobed leaves. Black Seeded Simpson is a trusted old standby, while New Red Fire puts on a show with giant crinkly leaves fading from dark green at the base to dark red at the tips.
How to Grow Looseleaf Lettuce
Looseleaf lettuce can be grown for baby leaf production, or allowed to grow to maturity and harvested as full heads. If you want full-sized heads, plants should be spaced 6 to 10 inches apart, but if harvesting young leaves they can be closer. Heads take about 60 days to mature, but baby leaves may be ready in around 40 days. If harvesting young leaves, wait until the leaves are around 6 inches tall, then cut the plants just above the base so that they can re-grow a new crop of leaves. (Known in the salad greens biz as “cut-and-come-again” harvesting.)
Looseleaf lettuce is also known as:
- Cutting lettuce
- Baby leaf lettuce
Young, tender spinach leaves make a flavor and nutrient-packed contribution to any salad. Noble Giant spinach is particularly good for salads, since its leaves stay tender even as the plants grow large. Winter Giant is incredibly cold hardy and can provide fresh greens deep into the winter under row cover or a passive greenhouse, while America is perfect for spring planting as it resists bolting in heat longer than other varieties. The old heirloom standby Bloomsdale Long Standing lives up to its name too, heavy yielding and slow to bolt. Pro tip: using salad dressing with lemon juice can help dissolve oxalate crystals that cause that “fuzzy teeth” feeling you get when eating raw spinach.
How to Grow Spinach
Spinach is a quick-growing crop that can provide you with delicious, nutrition-packed salads through many months of the year with well-timed plantings. It prefers well draining soil amended with plenty of compost. For spring harvest, sow seeds 4-6 weeks before the last frost, and for fall harvest, sow 6-8 weeks before first frost. Plant seeds about ½ inch deep and 2 inches apart. As the plants grow and begin to crowd each other, thin the seedlings by harvesting approximately every other plant to give the remaining plants more room to mature. The outer leaves of each plant should just barely touch those of its neighbor. Plants will reach full size in about five weeks. Use the cut-and-come-again harvesting method, and allow the plants to re-grow again from the base.
Baby kale leaves make a delicious, hearty and nutrition-packed addition to salads. Red Russian is a favorite variety for salad greens, and Ethiopian Blue is a good choice as well, with smaller leaves that stay tender and sweet as the plants mature. Young kale leaves are tender, mild-flavored and sweet, but tend to take on a bit more toughness and bitter flavor as they grow bigger, making full-sized kale better suited to cooked dishes. But, even mature kale can make an excellent salad with a little trick known as “massaging” the leaves. Simply put chopped kale in a big bowl with a little salt and olive oil and gently squeeze and mix the leaves with your hands until they begin to soften. Here’s the foolproof formula for an amazing massaged kale salad: combine chopped kale, olive oil, lemon juice, minced garlic, and a pinch of salt in a bowl, massage, then add chopped nuts, dried fruit, and shredded parmesan cheese, mix it up, and serve. (Thank us later.) Lacinato, Red Ursa, or curly-leaved Vates (Dwarf Curled Scotch) are great varieties for this application.
How to Grow Kale
Kale is a frost-tolerant plant that tends to bolt in heat, so most growers start seed indoors in late winter and set out transplants in early spring. Plants can also be started in late summer indoors or under shade cloth, and transplanted out in early fall, and can be harvested well into the winter if kept under row cover. For cut-and-come-again baby leaf production, direct sow and then harvest when the leaves are 4-6 inches tall. It takes about 50 days to harvest full sized leaves, and about 30 to 40 days for baby leaves. Mature plants need about 12 inches of space between plants, baby greens only a few inches.
Also Known As:
- Leaf cabbage
Ah, now we’re really getting into the worldly and refined salad greens. The delicate leaves of arugula have a rich, almost nutty, flavor with a tangy and peppery kick unlike any other green. You might remember a time when then-president Obama cracked an ill-advised joke about the price of arugula at Whole Foods and was roundly chastised in the media for being elitist. The pundits weren’t wrong. Arugula is elite - in flavor. Grow some and taste for yourself. Common Arugula is quick-growing and reliable in cool weather, while our Slow Bolt variety will hold out longer in hot weather. Want even more peppery kick, and even slower bolting? Try Wild Arugula.
How to Grow Arugula
Arugula can be direct-seeded as soon as the soil is workable in spring, and can provide a consistent salad greens supply throughout much of the year if seeded in successions about two weeks apart until one month before the first frost. Leaves can be ready to harvest in as little as four weeks. Cut the whole plant just above the base when the leaves are 2-3 inches long, or wait until plants are full sized and harvest leaves around the edges of each plant. Arugula prefers fertile and well drained soil, but tolerates a wide range of soil conditions. Hot weather can make arugula spicier and more bitter, so some gardeners may find that they prefer not to grow it in the hottest part of the year. Also note that arugula is in the brassica family, so try to avoid planting it in the same place where other brassicas like kale, broccoli, or cabbage were planted the year before.
Also Known As:
8. Asian Greens
When you think of Asian greens, you might think of stir fry vegetables like bok choi and chinese cabbage, but some greens in this category make great salads too! Mizuna adds a spicy kick of a similar quality to wasabi (but way less intense!). Try frilly common Mizuna, or our vibrant Red-Streaked variety. Hong Vit, a kind of spicy radish greens hailing from Vietnam, is another punchy salad addition. The spoon-shaped, crunchy and mild leaves of Tatsoi make a perfect salad when small, or a perfect stir-fry addition when bigger. Feeling adventurous? Try young edible chrysanthemum greens in your salad. Though mostly known only as an ornamental flower in the US, the leaves of Garland chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum coronarium) are widely eaten in Asia, and known in Japan as shungiku.
How to Grow Asian Greens
Most greens in this category are related to mustard greens (Brassica rapa) and are quite cold tolerant, though exposure to too much cold in spring can cause them to bolt quickly as the weather warms up. It’s a good idea to seed or transplant them outside no more than three weeks before the last frost date, unless they will be covered. Sow again in late summer for fall harvest. Baby greens can usually be harvested in about 4 weeks, though full-sized plants take about 7-8 weeks to mature. Tatsoi will form a low-growing rosette about a foot across if allowed to grow to full size. Shungiku, or chrysanthemums, are in a category of their own, and should be sown outside in spring after the risk of frost has passed. They prefer full sun, but are tolerant of some shade, and a wide variety of soil conditions.
Also Known As:
- Tatsoi is also known as “spinach mustard”
- Mizuna is also known as “water greens” or “Japanese mustard”
- Garland chrysanthemum is called shungiku in Japanese, or tong ho in Cantonese, and sometimes called “chop suey greens” in grocery stores
The chicories are a group of colorful, cold-hardy bitter greens originally hailing from Northern Italy. Rossa di Verona radicchio sports deep red leaves with striking white veins that form a tight head almost like a cabbage. It adds a colorful, crunchy punch to salads when grated or sliced finely and dressed with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and a pinch of salt. Endives such as Broadleaf Batavian or Green Curled Ruffec can be added to salads as young leaves, or as chopped full heads more like radicchio. Fun fact: the blue-flowering chicory you might know as a coffee substitute is related to these leafy greens. It’s the same species as radicchio, Cichorium intybus, but more wild and not bred to produce those colorful heads of leaves.
How to Grow Chicory
Radicchio and endive are incredibly frost tolerant, and can be direct seeded or transplanted as soon as the soil is workable in early spring. Sow seeds about 1 inch apart and ⅛ inch deep in rows 12-18 inches apart, and thin to about 8 inches apart as the plants grow and begin to crowd each other. (And eat your thinnings, of course!) Chicories prefer well-draining, fertile soil and require plenty of water. To the extent possible, they should be watered around the base of the plant and not from above, since leaves inside waterlogged heads can begin to rot. Chicories don’t do well in heat, so these are a spring, fall and winter crop only. For fall and winter harvest, seed in late summer. For growers in warm climates, a fall crop may need to be germinated in trays in a cool spot indoors, since soil temperatures outside might be too high. Most gardeners are happy to grow their chicories outdoors and enjoy them as they grow naturally, but if you really want to level up your chicory game like a pro, you can “force” your plants. This means digging up the plant in the fall and cutting off the head, then planting it in a pot and keeping it in a basement or root cellar with 50-60 degree temperatures. When allowed to re-grow in the dark and cool, the resulting head will be lighter colored (or brighter red, in the case of red varieties) and sweeter flavored.
Also Known As
- Radicchio is sometimes called Italian Chicory
- Broad-leaved endives are often called escarole, while curly types are called frisee
The word “cress” comes from the old German cresso, meaning sharp or spicy, and actually refers to several related plants that grow similarly and all have a peppery bite. These greens are especially good to grow at home, since you’re not very likely to find them in a grocery store in the US (though they are gaining popularity as more people learn about their impressive nutritional value - they’re packed with vitamins A, C, and K, as well as tons of calcium and iron.) Watercress is wonderful when added to a salad, or made into a peppery pesto or sauce. Upland Creasy Greens are a traditional Southern Appalachian vegetable prized for growing through the cold winters. They can be eaten raw, but are also well-loved cooked in bacon grease and finished with a splash of vinegar.
How to Grow Cress
Watercress, as its name suggests, needs lots of water to grow. It grows naturally at the edges of clean, gently flowing streams, and if you’re lucky enough to have one of those, you’re in luck. If not, watercress can be grown in containers. You’ll need a pot with a drain hole in the bottom, and a bigger container with no drain holes for the first pot to nest inside. Fill the inner pot with compost-rich soil, then set it inside the larger container and fill the outer container with water until it almost reaches the top of the inner pot. This way, the water will saturate the soil of the inner pot, where you’ll plant your watercress. You’ll want to make sure the water container always stays topped up, and change out the water completely every few days to make sure it doesn’t get stagnant.
Creasy Greens, on the other hand, are a kind of land cress, and they’re much lower maintenance. They like lots of water, but they don’t need their roots submerged. Simply broadcast seed and lightly cover with soil in the spring or late summer. Leaves will be ready for harvest in around 4 to 6 weeks.
Also Known As:
- Watercress is sometimes called yellowcress.
- Creasy Greens, sometimes spelled “creecy greens” or simply “creasies,” are also known as upland cress, winter cress, or dryland cress.
We hope you’ve collected some salad inspiration from this list, and feel ready to get growing your own salad greens! If you simply can’t decide which greens to choose, make things easy on yourself and try a seed mix, such as our Lettuce Mix, Herb Salad Mix, or Spicy Mesclun Mix. Or, shop our entire salad greens collection.