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The freshest-tasting salads are made with greens you’ve grown yourself, and you don’t need gardening experience or even a backyard to do it. Leafy greens are fast-growing plants that don’t need a lot of sunlight or room to grow. You can improvise a container using something you already have around the house: Poke a few drainage holes in a wide plastic box, a washbasin, or even a recycled dresser drawer, and you have a container for a crop of baby lettuces, chives, and mustard greens. Put the box in a sunny spot outdoors, anywhere you have space—a patio, your front steps, or a deck. You can even grow an entire salad, including crispy radishes; lettuces; and pretty, edible violas—all in the same bucket!
Nearly all leafy greens thrive in cooler weather, so plant them in the spring, before the weather gets too hot. There’s no need for store-bought transplants—salad greens are easy to grow from seed. Fill your container with good-quality potting soil, sprinkle seeds evenly around the surface, and cover lightly with soil. Keep the soil moist but not soggy, and wait for the seeds to sprout, which usually takes 6 to 10 days. Water regularly until the leaves are ready to eat, about three to six weeks.
Planting your own greens gives you the chance to try lettuce varieties you rarely find in the grocery store, such as the loose-leafed Lolla Rossa and Red Sails, both of which grow well in cramped quarters. Wild Italian arugula is a dependable crop that keeps growing, even when the weather gets hot. Wrinkly Crinkly cress is tiny when fully grown—no space is too small for this peppery little green. Mizuna is a mildly tangy mustard green that makes a unique substitute for lettuce, and the flowers are edible, too!
Harvest them when you’re ready to enjoy them, by snipping the outer leaves about an inch above the soil line (they’ll grow new leaves from where you cut them). Dress them simply with a little lemon juice and olive oil, the better to enjoy their fresh flavor.
Make a Mini-Salad: You can grow the tiny immature salad greens known as “microgreens” indoors in just a few weeks. Fill a recycled takeout container with soil, plant the seeds, and place the container in a sunny windowsill. When the flavor- and vitamin-packed leaves are about an inch high, snip them and add them to your salad. Try radish, beet, arugula, kale, onion, or basil greens.
A few sources for heirloom seeds:
Gayla Trail is the author of Grow Great Grub: Organic Food from Small Spaces.