Growing Salad Greens in Spring

Spinach and romaine lettuces
A suite of spinach and romaine lettuces growing in late March.

This is the time of year to start your seeds for salad greens, such as spinach, lettuce, and arugula. Getting a head start indoors will ensure that you will have fresh greens by late March to early April when daytime temperatures are warm enough for growing and nights are still cool and crisp. Once transplanted in the garden in early March, your seedling starts should take off, if your beds have been well prepared.
Lettuce (Lactuca sativa) is the most variable green—coming in lots of shapes, lead densities and colors. Some of the most common and popular types include the upright romaine or cos lettuce (popular in Caesar’s salads), crisphead or iceberg lettuce, and looseleaf types, which include butterhead and oakleaf varieties, among others. Colors vary from bright chartreuse green to deep green, purple and bronze. Speckled varieties also exist, such as the Austrian ‘Forellenschluss’, which essentially translates to “trout-like”. Reliable starter varieties, such as the classic heirloom looseleaf variety ‘Black Seeded Simpson’, super tight-headed romaine ‘Spretnak’, and unusually beautiful French crisphead, ‘Reine Des Glaces’, are all quite easy and delicious.

Lactuca sativa 'Reine Des Glaces'
The French crisphead lettuce ‘Reine Des Glaces’ looks beautiful and has more flavor than your average iceberg lettuce.

Spinach and arugula grow under the same conditions as lettuce—requiring cool weather for best growth and flavor. Both are less variable in appearance, but there are quite a few cultivated varieties with special characteristics that set them apart. Spinach may have smooth or savoyed leaves and some varieties are slower to bolt (set flower) in spring than others. The 1925 heirloom ‘Bloomsdale’ has large, savoyed leaves and is slower to bolt than most. I contrast, ‘Corvair’ has large, smooth leaves and is resistant to downy mildew. Some cultivars, such as ‘Baby’s Leaf‘, are recommended for growing “baby spinach”. Arugula cultivars vary somewhat in leaf shape, color and heat. The popular ‘Wasabi’ is an easy-to-grow selection with leaves that truly taste of hot wasabi. The new ‘Dragon’s Tongue’ is a visually pretty, finely cut variant with purple-red venation.

Looseleaf lettuce varieties can come with variable leaf shapes and colors.

There are a few things to know when growing these greens. To begin with, they must have cool germination temperatures. Lettuce seed, for example, germinates best at temperatures between 70 and 40 degrees F, with those at the higher end sprouting faster. Most other greens do, too. The small, almond-shaped seeds of lettuce also require light to germinate, so be sure not to cover the seed—just gently pat it down and wet its soil completely. Arugula seed is also small and should be surface sown, but spinach seed is larger and can be planted just below the soil’s surface. For planting all these seeds, it is vital to select a quality seed-starting mix with a fine texture, such as Fafard Seed Starting Mix with Resilience. (For more seed-starting tips, click here.)

Tidy open beds
Tidy, open beds and good spacing are needed for healthy, vigorous greens.

Before planting, be sure to harden seedlings off, slowly exposing them to outdoor temperatures and sunlight until they are acclimated. Soil should be fortified with a quality organic amendment.  I recommend Fafard Garden Manure Blend for greens. Work it in evenly before planting your seedlings. Once seedlings are planted around six to eight inches apart, water them well and apply a light solution of water-soluble, all-purpose fertilizer.
In no time, you should have harvestable greens. In is not uncommon for most greens to take between 45 to 50 days to produce after planting. Harvest depends on the green. Spinach, arugula, and looseleaf Fafard Garden Manure Blend packlettuce can be harvested leaf by leaf while romaine and crisphead lettuce are harvested whole by the head. The easiest way is to cut the head with a harvest knife from the point where it meets the ground.
It is not uncommon for a few stray greens to begin bolting before they are harvested. If this happens, let them bloom and set seed. After plants have bolted, wait for the seed to mature and dry. Then collect the seeds for planting later in the season when growing conditions are cool once again.

Heat Tolerant Greens for Summer

Swiss chard
Swiss chard is a delicious, heat-tolerant green that’s as pretty as it is tasty. (photo by Jessie Keith)

When temperatures heat up in early summer, the tender lettuces of spring bolt, choosing to obey the biological imperative and produce flowers and seeds instead of toothsome leaves. Gardeners understand the process, but those of us who are salad lovers still crave home-grown greens to complement bold summer veggies like tomatoes and peppers. Fortunately, salad salvation is easy to find in the form of heat-tolerant greens for summer.

Fafard Ultra Outdoor Planting Mix pack
Fafard Ultra Outdoor Planting Mix is recommended for growing greens.

These leafy garden favorites range from low-growing plants perfect for container culture to statuesque specimens that can serve as anchor plants in ornamental potagers or edible landscapes. Seeds or starter plants for these summer-loving salad species are easy to obtain from garden centers or online vendors. Plant them in high-quality planting media, like Fafard Premium Topsoil or Fafard Ultra Outdoor Planting Mix, and you can raise a steady supply of cool greens in even the hottest weather.

Malabar spinach
Malabar spinach is both an attractive vine and edible green.

Swiss Chard

Swiss Chard (Beta vulgaris var. cicla): Possibly the most glamorous member of the beet family, spinach-like Swiss chard has been fashionable for the last decade or so because it is as beautiful as it is delicious. Varieties like ‘Orange Chiffon’ or ‘Bright Lights’ dominate the vegetable garden with leaves, stems, veins or ribs that shine in shades of green, red, orange, pink, bronze, purple or silver. Chard is versatile and can be grown in-ground or in large containers. In the heat of summer, harvest the young leaves regularly for salads. Later on, reap mature leaves and stems for cooked dishes.

Malabar Spinach

Malabar Spinach (Basella rubra): Gardeners who crave greens and live with space limitations can harvest tasty leaves all summer by growing Malabar spinach, a twining, climbing plant, native to Africa. Though unrelated to true spinach, the mild-tasting, crinkled leaves thrive in hot weather and can be harvested young for salads. Striking reddish stems and older leaves lend a spinach or chard-like flavor to cooked dishes. Malabar spinach is a perennial, but can be grown as an annual in cold winter climates. Planted in-ground or in containers, the vines should be trained on trellises or pillars for best results.

New Zealand Spinach

New Zealand Spinach (Tetragonia tetragonioides): Another good spinach or chard-like green is New Zealand spinach, also a vining plant that can reach up to 2 feet tall when tied to a support. Featuring thick, pointed, green leaves, New Zealand spinach thrives best in a consistently moist environment. Harvest leaves regularly throughout the summer to promote continued production of fresh, tasty foliage. The plants tend to be prolific self seeders, but removal of flower stalks will control this problem.

Tart purslane leaves
These tart purslane leaves have been washed and spun and are ready to eat!

Garden Purslane

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea var. sativa): Step on a crack in midsummer and you may find yourself right on top of one of the most nutritious and heat-tolerant summer greens. Known as “verdolaga” in Spanish, common purslane is a low-growing, plant with mild, lemon-flavored leaves. Cultivated varieties, like ‘Gruner Red’ and ‘Goldberg’ golden purslane, are larger than the wild types, with a somewhat upright habit. The species relatively diminutive nature makes it easy to grow in pots. Pinch back growing tips to stimulate bushy leaf growth and prevent the flower formation that leads to weedy proliferation. Harvest leaves regularly.

Vegetable Amaranth

Vegetable Amaranth (Amaranthus tricolor and other species): Related to the much-loved garden annual, love-lies-bleeding, vegetable amaranth is well known as an heirloom seed or grain producing plant. In many cultures cooks have long harvested the nutritious, edible leaves throughout the growing season for salads, as well as traditional soups and stews. Extremely heat tolerant, amaranth plants quickly grow 2 to 5 feet tall, depending on species and variety, thriving in warm weather with relatively little supplemental water. Amaranth leaves are often decorative enough to hold their own in a mixed-use, ornamental/edible planting scheme and may be marked with green, red, or a combination of the two colors. Terminal shoots should be pinched to promote branching.


Sea Purslane, Mountain Spinach, Orach (Atriplex hortensis): Annual orach is a slightly spicy green that will also add a colorful kick to edible landscapes. The tall stalks top out at 5 to 6 feet tall in summer, bearing pointed leaves that may be green, shades of pink and red, gold or purple. Eaten fresh or cooked, orach leaves grow on plants that are both heat and cold tolerant. Golden-leafed varieties are prized in Europe for fine flavor.

Standard salad greens
Standard salad greens are cool-season plants that won’t stand up to summer heat. (photo by Jessie Keith)