A bowl of fresh salad greens is always a welcome addition for dinner. Growing your own lettuce is a snap. You will get the freshest, tastiest and most nutritious greens, and you can have a constant supply for many months out of the year.
A small raised bed is ideal for this. It will be cleaner, easier to maintain and harvest, and provide the best soil conditions for plants. Patio containers do well enough, but they dry out faster than a garden bed. The bigger the container, the better.
The optimal size bed for a salad garden is 4’ x 4’ square, which allows for easy reach from all sides. This area should provide plenty of salad greens for a small family.
Many things can be used to frame the bed, from straw bales to cinder blocks to wood to rock edging. It should be at least 8” tall. Try to find a locally-produced source of high quality garden soil with compost, worm castings, or well-rotted manure mixed in. A bit of organic granular fertilizer will help too. Bagged garden soil from the big box stores is not ideal, being a lifeless substrate suffused with chemical fertilizers.
Locate the salad garden in a spot that gets at least six hours of direct sunlight and is close to a source of water. If you’re in a hot climate, try to give it some afternoon shade. Do not put landscape fabric underneath the bed, as this will impede beneficial earthworms and prevent natural soil mixing. Cardboard can be laid over grass, which will smother vegetation but decompose fairly quickly and add organic matter.
Now, on to planting the salad garden. Leaf lettuce is ideal for the home gardener with little space, because you can keep picking the outer leaves and it keeps growing. While head lettuce is great, it takes longer to mature, is more finicky, and is harvested once.
Try to find leaf lettuce varieties that are recommended for your climate. Plant a couple of different types, such as Buttercrunch and Romaine lettuce, which will give you different textures. Include a red leafed variety for a color splash.
It is best to grow leaf lettuce from seed. Simply sow three seeds every six inches and cover with a very thin sprinkling of soil. Lettuce seeds need to “see the sunlight” to sprout. Water lightly every day. They will take 10-14 days to sprout, but once they begin growing it won’t be long before harvest time. Pick the outer leaves and let the plants keep growing.
If the lettuce goes from dark green to light green, fertilize with organic fish emulsion every couple of weeks. To add some diversity to your salad, plant long-lasting kale or Swiss chard in the “back” (the northern side) of the bed. Perhaps set aside one row for radish, which sprouts and grows quickly, for a spicy crunch in the salad.