Of all the rewards of gardening, it's hard to beat the salad bowl full of freshly-picked greens. When the government announces Yet Another recall of lettuce or spinach due to some mysterious contamination in commercial fields, gardeners know exactly where their salad has been growing, whose hands have picked it, and what has or has not been sprayed on it.
Gardeners also don't have to settle for the shrink-wrapped solid heads of iceberg filling the bin of the grocery store, or the plastic bag filled with chunks of romaine starting to go brown. We have hundreds of different varieties available to choose from, and we can pick them at their tender peak. For optimal salad production, it is best to sow a succession of crops throughout the growing season, but gardeners in most zones encounter one persistent problem: the most common types of salad greens, lettuces and spinach, are cool-season plants. While they can tolerate some frost [spinach more than lettuce], they do not stand the summer heat well. The heads turn bitter and go to seed, and summer-sown seeds may not germinate. It is particularly frustrating when lettuce is just starting to form nice heads, only to have a heat wave cause them to bolt. In zones where summer heat is the rule, this can result in a seasonal salad gap during the very time of year when a cool, refreshing salad is most welcome. Just as the tomatoes for the salad are coming in, there are no more greens. Commercial growers plant where the conditions are ideal for production of these crops, but home gardeners need to cope with the seasons in the zones where we live.
We have a number of different ways to cope with this problem. We can start the slower-growing varieties inside to give them a head start. We can try to shade our salad crops from the worst of the heat. We can plant warm-season crops as a substitute for our favorite cool-season greens. Or we can turn to the seed companies for new varieties that are better able to stand the heat or more quick to mature. Every year there are dozens of new introductions as plant breeders develop different varieties.
Extending the season is not the only reason that gardeners should explore the new introductions instead of planting the same kinds of greens year after year. Breeders are giving us more color, more texture, more flavors, more crisp and more tender greens. Seed companies are also offering more varieties of organic seed and introducing cultivars from overseas that may be new to gardeners.
For this series of articles, I have gone to some of the seed companies to see what exciting new offerings they have for gardeners in their 2008 catalogs. The most striking trend is the introduction of many new kind of red lettuces, including some very dark red types. New lettuces and spinach are also coming out as cutting varieties to be used as "baby" greens and in mesclun mixes, such as the one pictured above. These plants readily re-grow new leaves as they are clipped for salads.Catalogs are also offering an increasing variety of salad crops with European roots. Batavia lettuce forms a loose head that is crisper than butterhead types. These come in both red and green varieties. The many varieties of Lollo are frilly-edged leaf lettuces that come from Italian ancestry and include some very dark reds. The fascination with red salad greens has also resulted in new red-veined spinach varieties bred to be cut as baby leaves. And for taste contrast, there are improved types of greens such as arugula, chicory and mustard, as well as edible flowers developed for their flavor in salads.
In the next parts of this series, I will discuss specific new cultivars of lettuce and other salad greens, all available to gardeners for the 2008 season.
Photo credit: Mesclun Sweet Salad Mix - W. Atlee Burpee
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on January 22, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previosly published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)