The Salad Equation

Grow greens with distinct flavors for a livelier salad bowl.

By Debbie Leung

Photography by Rob Cardillo

Growing Considerations 
One way of adding diversity to the salad bowl is to plant mesclun, a traditional seed mix that incorporates greens and herbs. I prefer to grow each salad ingredient separately, then combine them in the kitchen. Sow seeds directly in the garden in rows or beds when the soil temperature is conducive to germination, or start them indoors in pots. Many cool-season greens germinate best in cool soil. On the other hand, delay the planting of heat lovers, such as basil and amaranth, until after the last-frost date. 
For a continual harvest of young, fresh greens, plant small amounts every 2 or 3 weeks. Most greens like sun (although lettuce prefers a half-day of shade once hot weather arrives). Steady moisture and fertile, well-drained soil promote quick growth, which results in tender leaves of the highest quality. Drip irrigation or soaker hoses help maintain even soil moisture and are recommended for hot areas. A 2-inch layer of loose mulch, such as straw, serves three purposes: It suppresses weeds, it keeps the soil cool and moist, and it prevents mud from splattering the leaves.
Extend the growing season into early spring and late fall with row covers for cold-weather protection. Summer heat, however, is the factor that is most likely to limit the harvest of lettuce and other cool-season greens. As the weather heats up and days lengthen, lettuce loses its mild flavor and becomes increasingly bitter. For summer harvest, select heat-tolerant varieties and protect them from afternoon sun with shade cloth. Or sow greens for summer harvest between rows of sweet corn or tomatoes, where the taller plants provide some protective shade. There are limits: Even the most heat-tolerant lettuce variety won't taste good when the temperature exceeds 90°F.
Harvest and Chill 
Some people like their salad leaves really small, each leaf no larger than the bowl of a spoon. I prefer them about the size of my palm but no larger than my hand, when they are more flavorful and have developed their personalities. 
Cut whole plants of headed lettuces, radicchio, and small greens like mache. To harvest nonheading greens, snip leaves individually with scissors; more will grow back. Save thinnings of greens growing too close together for the salad bowl, too. And try the flower buds! Spring kale buds are exceptionally sweet, arugula buds quite hot.
Immediately soak the harvest for a few minutes in cold water. Scoop out any debris with a strainer. Shake water droplets from the leaves (or use a salad spinner), then use the greens immediately or roll them gently in a dry paper towel and seal them in plastic bags. Greens stay fresh in the refrigerator for up to a week.
Finishing Touches
Blend greens to meet your fancy, then consider these additions. Dressing. A mild dressing with delicate flavors needs mild greens to stand out. Stronger dressings, like a pure oil with balsamic vinegar, can showcase the natural flavors of a spicy salad. Cheese. Add cheeses that grate or crumble well. Soft Gruyere is a good match for butter lettuce. Strong and salty feta, Parmesan, and blue cheeses offset the spiciness of arugula and mustards. Fruit. Soft fruits, such as pears, strawberries, and peaches, are appropriate additions in a salad of soft greens. The sweetness of fruit can offset stronger flavors or be the focus of a mild salad. Edible flower petals. For a visual spark, experiment with blossoms of calendula, borage, gladiola, daylily, squash, pea, bean, nasturtium, and 'Lemon Gem' marigold. Using only the petals, toss with the greens or sprinkle on top.