Stretch out the growing season with fall planted salad greens

URBANA, Ill. – When people think of fall, harvesting salad greens rarely comes to mind; however, late summer is a terrific time for gardeners to begin planting lettuce, arugula, endive, or other leafy greens for salads says Nancy Kreith, University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator. Not only are these plants quick and easy to grow as temperatures start to cool, but they also add a significant source of nutrients to your diet.

“Most leafy greens are rich in vitamins A and C, potassium, calcium, and fiber, and are low in calories,” Kreith says. “Studies have shown lettuce to have high antioxidant compounds – red leaf being the highest – that help to fight certain types of cancer.”

When growing salad greens, transplants are not as easy to come by in late summer as they are in the spring. The best option may be to plant seed directly into the garden bed. Transplants can be set into the ground in early to mid-September and seeds should be planted in late August to early September. Refer to seed packets for specific planting dates for your region. Direct seeding is a great method for most salad greens, considering many will go from seed to harvest in less than 45 days.  

Whether planting seeds or transplants, loosen the soil first, add all-purpose granulated organic or synthetic fertilizer, plant, and water. For transplants, carefully spread out the roots, place the plant into a hole, and lightly firm up the soil around the base of the plant. 

For seed, dig a shallow trench, add a pinch of seed along the row, and lightly cover it. Be sure not to plant seeds too deep. A general rule of thumb is to plant a seed two to three times its thickness underground. Keep seeds evenly moist with a light sprinkle of water every other day until they germinate, usually in about a week. Typically, most direct-seeded salad greens will not need to be thinned. 

“Gardeners should think about what types of greens will suit their tastes when choosing what to plant,” Kreith says.

This list of a few common salad greens is a good starting point for this fall.

  • Green leaf lettuce is known for its mild flavor and grows in a loose bunch. 
  • Red leaf lettuce adds color to your diet, is rich in antioxidants, and has a shorter shelf life.  
  • Butterhead (bib or Boston) lettuce grows into a soft head with tender, rounded leaves and is known for its mild, buttery flavor.  
  • Arugula grows very fast and is often harvested as baby leaves. It has a distinctive peppery flavor and is quite pungent. Harvest this green before it becomes overgrown and hairy. 
  • Mizuna is tangy, not as tender as most greens, and will add texture to salads with its deeply cut fringed leaves.  
  • Japanese red mustard has a sharp flavor with notes of pepper, garlic, and mustard. It should be harvested as baby leaves for use in salads. Larger leaves are commonly used in stir-fry dishes.  
  • Baby bok choy has a mild, refreshing flavor and crunchy, celery-like texture. The outer, more mature leaves of this green can be harvested as needed or wait until the loose head has matured and cut the entire plant at the base.  
  • Belgian endive is pale yellow and has a dense, long head of crunchy leaves. It can be added to salads but often is used for wraps or other appetizers.  
  • Curly endive (frisee) has beautiful, frilly, yellowish-green leaves with a strong, somewhat bitter taste. 

Once salad green varieties are selected, sourced, and planted, follow the best practices for post-planting care. Provide plants with at least 1 inch of water per week. Plants should not need another round of fertilizer with good quality soil. Remove weeds and consider mulching the soil with straw or untreated grass clippings. Monitor plants and harvest them as leaves mature or as needed depending on the type.  

“It is important to have a plan for harvesting, as greens can quickly become overgrown and result in a tough texture and bitter taste,” Kreith says.

For continued harvest, cut the outer leaves first and keep the central point growing. Baby leaves can be harvested, clear cut, as the plant grows and are tender and tasty. Plants will grow back for another round of harvesting after being clear cut. Leaves can be rinsed in cold water before serving and pat dry with a clean towel. 

If a bulk supply of greens are ready to harvest, cut and store them in the refrigerator rather than letting them over-mature. Then, sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labor, as these nutritious salad greens will make a wonderful addition to the garden and your plate. 

For more information on vegetable gardening, connect with your local Illinois Extension county office at go.illinois.edu/ExtensionOffice.

Photo by Nancy Kreith. 

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