Bagged salad from a supermarket rarely lives up to the promise of fresh, crisp leaves. It usually takes around 3 days for salad leaves to make it from field to supermarket and after the leaves have been cut, washed, packed and transported they usually show it. In contrast, home-grown lettuce is an easy crop, superior in taste and freshness but many people consider it boring in comparison to bagged salad mixes. Yet there’s no reason why home gardeners shouldn’t produce at least as wonderful a range of mixed salad leaves as commercial growers. So what combinations work best and what are the best ways to grow them?
Although I’m not a great fan of bagged salad I have to admit that they often use a good variety of leaves. It’s common for commercial salad mixes to use a base of cheaper lettuce and then ‘spice it up’ with a smaller number of stronger tasting or brightly colored ingredients. The same technique can work well for gardeners.
Types of Salad Leaves
The main ingredient of most salad combinations is lettuce but there are so many wonderful ones to try. Lettuce varieties can be grouped into several types:
- Crisphead: From the traditional iceberg to frilly-edged varieties, these form tight ‘heads’ and add a crunchy texture to salads. The inner leaves often have a slightly sweeter blanched taste which children prefer.
- Butterhead/Loose Head: The traditional flat lettuce, these have loose heads with lots of broad leaves that are soft and mild in taste.
- Oakleaf: One of my favorite lettuce types, oakleaf lettuces have a distinctive leaf shape but come in a variety of colors. They crop reliably for a long time.
- Cos: Upright lettuces, often with tall leaves that combine the crunchiness of crispheads with a more leafy taste.
- Lamb’s Lettuce / Mache / Cornsalad: Mild with a slightly waxy texture this makes an ideal base for winter salads as it grows at much lower temperatures.
Most lettuce types are available in colorful varieties but other vegetables can be used to add color too:
- Beets: Beet leaves are best picked young and the red-veined leaves are distinctive.
- Chard: Red ruby chard is often used in place of beet leaves as it is more productive. Again, it must be picked young or it won’t be tender enough to eat raw.
Members of the cabbage family are often called Oriental leaves when added to salads. They are traditionally produced in fall as they continue to grow well when days are shortening. Flea-beetle can cause small holes in the leaves in spring and summer when they will need protecting with fleece:
- ArugulaThis spicy leaf has to be one of my all-time favorites. Several varieties are available, ranging from the milder salad types to more peppery wild arugula.
- Mustards: These come in beautiful large colored leaves tinged with purples and have a sharp and peppery taste.
- Mizuna / Mibuna: A simple and productive leaf to grow that produces a quick harvest.
- Tatsoi: Rounded leaves, thicker than normal lettuce and picked young for salads.
Chicories and endives are traditional in many European salads. For the full range see Barbara’s recent article Charmed by Chicories:
- Endive: Frizzy leaves with a slightly bitter taste that complements lettuces.
- Radicchio: Used to add brightly colored red crunch to a salad.
- Chicory: For those who like a challenge, forced chicons can be one of the earliest crops of the year.
Many other leaves can be added:
- Spinach: Baby spinach leaves are used as the base of many salads but many gardeners find it difficult to grow in quantity so it’s worth checking out Barbara’s article on growing spinach.
- Herbs: Some people love strongly flavored herb combinations, particularly soft leaved types. Personally I like adding fresh basil leaves or mint but avoid the stronger tastes such as fennel.
- Watercress: A distinctive flavor often used as a base for spicier salads. It’s best grown in a stream of running water but some people report success using containers of damp compost.
- Sorrel: Sharp, lemony tasting leaves from a productive perennial plant. Just one or two plants are sufficient.
- Land Cress: Larger leaved than the indoor grown varieties with a distinctive strong taste.
Once you have selected the leaves and grown them it’s time to start mixing them up in the kitchen. One of the delights of growing your own salad is that you become aware of the best times for harvesting each plant and can start creating your own seasonal combinations.
Several of the bagged salad manufacturers list ingredients on their websites, such as Spanish producer Florette and California-based Ready-Pac. These make a good place to start if you already know the kinds of salad you like, or you’d like some inspiration.
- Baby-Leaf Salad: Combine baby-leaf spinach, beet leaves and the young leaves of open headed lettuces or lamb’s lettuce.
- Arugula Salad: A base of different lettuce textures (butterhead, oakleaf, cos) mixed with about one-quarter arugula to add taste.
- Crispy Salad: Various crisphead and cos lettuce types can be combined with radicchio and chicory for extra crunch.
- Herb Salad: Start with any lettuce combination and add basil, fennel, mustard, mizuna, watercress etc. The possibilities are endless.
- Children's Salad: Kids often prefer milder tastes, so start with iceburgs and tender flat-leaved types with cucumber chunks and sweet tomatoes.
A shortcut is to buy seed salad mixes such as mesclun types but it’s then hard to distinguish the various types in a mix to work out which ones you like, so my preference has always been to grow them separately, trying one or two new varieties each year. With a little planning you can easily produce delicious combinations that are so much fresher and cheaper than shop-bought mixes and take no longer to prepare.