Those firm round balls of pale green lettuce known as iceberg are still a mainstay of many salad eaters, but health-conscious folk are turning more to the darker green, leafy kinds for extra flavor and vitamins. Most supermarkets carry less than half a dozen kinds of head lettuces, although you may find some of the pre-washed mixes that include other types. The farmers market is an obvious choice for a wider variety, but given how easy they are to grow, expanding your palate of salad fixings is a snap.
Restaurants have been ahead of the curve in recent years by serving up some interesting salad greens under the French name mesclun. Mesclun literally means “mixture” and could include any number of different lettuces and other leafy species. It is easy to sow such a mixture of seeds, and harvesting the young leaves means you can have salads from one plot for several months before the plants need to be replaced. Seed companies have packaged any number of mixes that combine the mild-flavored lettuces in a rainbow of greens and reds. There are dozens of varieties you can choose from if you want to create your own mix or experiment with others. There are red-leaved varieties like bull’s blood, vulcan, and sentry; curly-leaved ones like black-seeded Simpson and tango; as well as some with divided leaves resembling those of oaks in both colors. There is even one called freckles that has green leaves with a dusting of red spots. Seed of the often pricier butter lettuces are also available and easy to grow.
There are also mixes that spice things up by adding non-lettuce species like arugula (also known as rocket or roquette), mustard, or radish. In fact, these other types of greens are just as easy to grow as lettuce and even more versatile. Cut the young leaves for salad or cook the mature leaves as you would spinach. Grow some spicy mustard in green to red shades, mild m•che (also known as corn salad or lamb’s lettuce), or salad burnet with its cucumber-like flavor, or peppery watercress. Try some Japanese mizuna, Chinese tatsoi (both varieties of mustard greens), or Thai mustard greens. All are chock full of vitamins and antioxidants. Spinach and its relatives like chard are also tasty additions to salads in their immature stages. If you grow beets and carrots, thin the rows and pop the sprouts into the salad bowl or tuck them into your sandwich in lieu of boring old lettuce.
Prepare the soil by digging and raking to a fine texture. The seeds of most of these species are tiny. Broadcast them in patches or wide rows if you plan to cut them repeatedly for baby greens or single rows if you plan to let some of them reach maturity. You can thin the rows several times as the plants grow, adding the young plants to your salad until the remaining plants are at the suggested spacing. Mulch between rows with screened compost or other fine-textured mulch as the plants grow. Take note of other instructions on the seed package; lettuce, for example, needs light to germinate, so it must not be covered. Mist often until seedlings are established, gradually deepening the watering to encourage good root systems that will resist wilting as days get warmer. Most greens require consistently moist soil to do well, so regular watering and plenty of moisture-retaining organic material will keep them happy. Stagger your sowings for longer production. In warm interior areas, lettuce will bolt (stop producing new leaves and send up a flower stalk) by midsummer, so by picking young leaves as soon as they are big enough for fresh salads, you can extend the season.
Even if you don’t have garden space to devote to salad, lettuce and other greens are easy to grow in containers of almost any size. Use a good commercial potting mix that is high in organic content. You can also position the pot near the kitchen for easy picking. This is a great way to get kids interested in eating salad. Their little fingers are perfect for pinching or snipping the baby leaves. They will also have fun swishing them around gently in the sink full of water to wash off any grit. Salad spinners are the best way to treat these tender greens, although blotting carefully on toweling works as well.
Iceberg will probably continue to be a big seller. It is definitely comfort food for several generations of salad lovers, but with so many other choices for tasty and healthy greens, anyone can be a gourmet.
Virginia Hayes, curator of Ganna Walska Lotusland, will answer your gardening questions. Address them to Gardens, The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., S.B., CA 93101. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.