Growing and using salad leaves

Growing and using salad leaves

Matt Wilkinson
0 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Jacqui Melville

Now that I’ve explained what a salad is to me, it would seem weird not to tell you a little bit of the history of the salad, give a little guide on how I grow salad leaves, and offer some basic salad dressings that go with different leaves and other tasty things.

My potted history of the salad

There is surely a little history out there stating where the salad originated, but I will tell you my version and if I’m wrong, well, never mind.

Documentation tells us that the Egyptians and Greeks all had a version of a salad, but I’m going to stick with the Romans – they did build great roads after all. Salad derives from the word ‘salt’, and it was believed Romans used to salt their vegetables and take them on their voyages of discovery, later rinsing off the salt and adding what are now known as edible weeds – basically they foraged for green leaves to add to their vegies. These leaves were believed to be anything in the cabbage, knotweed, goosefoot, grass, legume, amaranth and sunflower families, and many of these are what we use as salad leaves today.

In more recent times, and still in common practice today, the salad is seen as a cleanser of sorts, taken after a meal to freshen the palate and help the digestive system relax a little before the next course – or, as seen on many a menu in the United States, it is enjoyed at the start of a meal as an hors d’oeuvre.

In many a household or restaurant, the salad has become a name for a side, or something to accompany your main meal – or the salad part is put at the end or beginning of a dish, when basically the chef hasn’t got a clue what to call the little devil of a dish. No matter where it came from, the salad is thankfully with us.

The leaves of the salad

So I’m at the back door step – it truly doesn’t matter what season it is – bowl and scissors in hand, off to snip me some leaves.

We really do take salad leaves for granted. Just think, we all generally just grab a head of lettuce or place in a plastic bag some leaves from the supermarket or greengrocer, not really thinking about their taste – the most important factor in the food we prepare – or their texture. These are the two main features of a salad leaf.

Salad-leaf growing has changed a lot in the past decade or two, just as all of agriculture has changed, really – trying to grow for the mass population so we can have what we want, when we want it.

But take a minute, please… if we have the ability, or more importantly the space, I think we all should grow salad leaves and herbs in our garden, balcony, or yes, even our windowsills. The salad leaves we now see on the supermarket shelves are more often than not grown hydroponically, with quick production as the foremost principle, with little thought to their flavour and texture.

We’ve all done it: bought some leaves, placed them in our ‘crisper’ in the fridge, then come back to them at a later stage, only to throw the limp leaves away.

When making a leaf salad, its freshness is surely more important than with any other vegetable or fruit we grow. Most other fresh produce can survive a bit, but in my opinion not the salad leaf.

Here is something else to ponder: a single cos (romaine) lettuce costs around $3 in Australia. A tray of cos seedlings costs around $3, and gives you 6–8 seedlings. A packet of seeds costs about $3.50 and yields about 30–40 lettuces. I’m okay at maths, but that adds up nicely to me (I am originally from Yorkshire, you know!). So basically I’m saying, grow your own…

Grow, you good things…

So how to grow these little beauties? Well, all my information here is just a guide. If you really want to learn more, there are many great books out there, or just head down to your local nursery and chat to the staff – they are full of information (more correct than I) as to the season and climate you are in. I always leave a nursery thinking damn, I should have known that!

Lettuces can generally be grown all year round, except in the really hot months. A few years back, I bit into a butter lettuce – my favourite of all lettuces – in the height of summer, and it was bitter as all buggery. It was simply trying to keep its very being alive, by going to seed of course. The structure and taste of all plants change once they go to seed, or are in the process of bolting or going to seed.

My rule of thumb for growing lettuces through summer and into early autumn is to pick a nice shaded area, which gets a little sun for a part of the day (ideally the first sun or late sun). If the lettuces are in full sun, they will more likely bolt and become bitter… but one way around this is to cover them with a shade cloth. In late autumn through to spring, grow your lettuces in a nice sunny spot. And yes they do grow in winter, in cooler to mild climates, but not in areas where hard frost and snow occur, unless you have them covered (in a green house, for instance).

As a rule, for the mustard leaves, soft leaves and herbs, I sow seeds directly into the ground. I keep them well watered until I see their heads pop up (roughly 4–10 days), then lightly water them every day or so, depending on the season – more in summer. Make sure you don’t directly water the leaves; in the past I have ‘burnt’ leaves by doing this, as they are fragile. I usually thin them (i.e. remove the excess seedlings, allowing the others to grow) at about 14 days, then most should be ready to harvest in another 14–40 days. Not bad, hey! Obviously the timing will depend on the particular climate you are in.

For the hearty and crunchy and bitter leaves, I like to prepare a seed tray, or an old polystyrene box filled with good seed-raising mix, which I keep watered until the seeds sprout. Then I generally transplant into the garden at 14–20 days, or until they look big enough to cope. Keep them tightly planted, I say – it gives them enough room to grow, but also keeps them from flopping over too far, and I like a smaller lettuce. When harvesting these, I like to take the outside leaves off, rather than cutting off the whole head – and as a general rule I quickly run out the back and collect the leaves just before serving the meal, give them a quick wash under cold water, spin, or dry lightly in a towel, then add my dressing and serve.

Salad friends and foes

There are a few good tips when growing salad leaves. I like to put them in with marigolds, as these are a great companion plant – as are radishes, carrots and onions. And my rocket goes gangbusters near strawberries.

Remember slugs and snails love salad leaves. Scattering a few used coffee grounds around will help stop them, or go out late at night with a torch and collect them in a container, then place them on your bird table or on the lawn for the birds to enjoy the next morning.

In my head, I group salad leaves into the following categories; this is simply my thought process into them, rather than conventional wisdom. I’ve also given some examples as to what kind of leaves are in each category. My perfect salad would be a mixture of one or two or all of them.

I also love herbs in a leaf salad, especially mint, sorrel and tarragon. They add such a delicate and interesting layer to the flavour.

Hearty and crunchy

–Cos (romaine) lettuce

–Little gem lettuce

–Speckled cos (romaine) lettuce

–Iceberg lettuce

–Cos berg lettuce

–Butter head lettuce (a favourite of mine)

–Mignonette lettuce (the bronze and green varieties)

Bitter leaves

–Witlof (Belgian endive/chicory)

–Radicchio (little Italian delis often sell a range of interesting radicchio seeds)


–Dandelions (which I always thought were best for rabbits!)

Mustard leaves

–Nasturtium leaves


–Upland cress


–Baby green and red mustard leaves

Soft leaves

–Lollo bianco and rosso lettuce

–Green and red oak lettuce

–Baby English spinach leaves

–Mâche (lamb’s lettuce/corn salad)



–Salad bowl lettuce (red and green varieties)

Salad herbs


–Mint (I love its freshness in a salad!)






–Broad bean tops

–Pea tendrils

–Micro shoots, such as radish, beetroot, alfalfa, fenugreek and kale

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