Leafy greens are some of the most popular garden plants and for good reason. With a dizzying array of varieties there’s something for everyone’s taste and everyone’s climate.
Today, we’ll look at some broad tips for growing leafy greens of your own. We’ll look at techniques for growing both indoors and out, and help you enjoy fresh salads year round regardless of where you live.
If you’re interested in growing any of these I encourage you to explore more about the specifics of each plant. While these broad tips will serve you well to start, it’s always a good idea to learn more about the plants you’re growing.
Most Are Cool Weather
First off, it’s important to recognize that most leafy greens are cooler weather crops. This means that they grow best in early spring when the temperatures are still cooler. In fact, certain varieties of leafy greens, like Red Russian Kale, can actually grow throughout the winter in some climates.
Many leafy greens will germinate and grow best when the temperature reaches around 60° Fahrenheit, which is lower than a lot of other plants. This gives you more options compared to other plants on when and where you can start your plants.
For outdoor growing, you can sow your seeds in early spring just as the soil begins to heat up. Indoors, you should keep them in a cooler room, or even in a garage or other location that gets sparsely heated. Being creative, you can grow leafy greens in areas that might not work for the vast majority of other crops.
Being cool weather, it’s also important to keep your plants from getting too hot. Temperatures that push 75+ Fahrenheit will start to cause problems with your leafy greens. While this isn’t usually an issue indoors, outdoors it can be. Many locations will easily top this in the peak of summer. We’ll touch on some ways to help reduce the impact of higher temperatures later on in this article.
Keep A Steady Supply For Year Round Harvests
For those looking to enjoy year round harvests it’s important to keep a steady supply at different stages of growth. Most leafy greens are fairly quick growers, and will only provide a few harvests, so you’ll want to always be planting more to never run out.
The great news is that there are dozens of different leafy greens each of which has a plethora of varieties. Personally, I like to have a range of different leafy greens growing at once. That way, each harvest is unique and provides something slightly different.
You can also tailor the varieties to match with the time of year you’re growing. While some varieties like cool weather, and can even grow in winter, others will do better as the temperature heats up. Look to have a decent mix of both, and plant them at the appropriate time for best results.
Tips For Seed Starting
If you’re looking for that constant supply as mentioned above, it’s a good idea to sow a few seeds every two weeks or so. This Generally keeps a decent supply of plants at different stages of growth. That way, as you harvest one, the next batch is about ready to go.
I personally find it easiest to sow my seeds indoors in seed trays and transplant them later. Most leafy greens grow quite quickly, so you’ll typically be able to move them about 2-3 weeks after planting. You can also sow them directly in your soil, but I tend to add a few extra seeds when doing this to account for ones that don’t germinate.
In any case, you’ll want to make sure that their permanent home has nutrient rich soil. Any store bought potting or garden soil is going to work, and you can work in some light fertilizer to further improve the soil.
Wide But Deep Roots
Most leafy greens grow roots that are wide but not necessarily that deep. This leads to two important things to keep in mind.
First off, it should influence your container choice. Make sure to choose one that is wider than deep so that the roots have room to expand. Outdoors, give about 12” of spacing between your plants so that they have enough space to grow. In containers, you’ll want to do the same growing in a container that is at least 12” wide and being careful not to overcrowd your plants.
The other effect this has is the amount of water your plants need. Typically, you’ll need to water your leafy greens a bit more than other types of plants. This is because their roots are not deep, so as water drains through the soil it moves out of reach of the shallow root system. To combat this, be consistent in checking the top of the soil and water when it’s dry.
This adds a bit more maintenance, but also lessens the chance of overwatering. While you can still overwater your greens, it is a bit more difficult to accidentally do so compared to deeper root plants.
Protecting From High Temperatures
If you’re growing outdoors in an area that gets hot during the summer you’ll need to provide some type of protection for your plants. As temperatures climb to 75°+ Fahrenheit you’ll start to see problems with your greens. Any warmer than this and it can cause stunted growth and less than stellar harvests. It can also lead to bolting which we’ll look at more below.
The easiest way to prevent this is to use something like shade netting to help block some of the sun’s heat. Setting this up is pretty simple, and when done correctly can reduce the temperature by a large amount.
The key here is to only use this during the warmest parts of the day, otherwise it can block the sunlight that your plant still needs. You don’t want to leave it on too long, otherwise your plant might be light starved.
My recommendation is to leave it on for a few hours during the warmest part of the day, then remove it so your plant can get the sunlight it needs. This way you protect your plants from the heart while still allowing them enough sunlight to grow.
Indoors, this process is even easier. Your best bet is simply to move the container back a few feet to keep it out of direct sunlight. Keep your plants in an area that gets bright, but indirect sunlight, and you’ll likely be fine on the temperature front.
In both cases, you can also mist daily with cool water. This will help keep the plant’s temperature down, and also provide some additional moisture to prevent the plant’s leaves from getting burnt out by the light and heat.
Harvesting your leafy greens couldn’t be easier, you can either take a cut of the whole head or pick individual leaves. If taking the entire head, leave an inch or two of the plant to encourage regrowth. You should be able to harvest most leafy greens in this manner about 2-3 times before the plant is spent.
One thing to note, many leafy greens will start to flower, also known as bolting. Once a plant begins to bolt it will usually take on a bitter taste and no longer be suitable for harvesting. You want to make sure you harvest before it bolts, otherwise the crop might be wasted.
Most plants will bolt if exposed to higher temperatures for too long. This is why it’s important to keep your leafy greens fairly cool as this will help prevent them from bolting too soon. You can also pinch off any flower heads before they bloom to help slow down the bolting process.
Our Top 3 Leafy Greens
Lastly, I wanted to touch on my top 3 leafy greens to grow. These are my personal favorites to grow, and a great place to start those new to gardening.
A staple of salads and one of my favorites. There’s so many different varieties of lettuce that you can grow, but my favorite is romaine. Nothing beats a fresh summer salad with some freshly picked lettuce from your garden.
Lettuce is also very simple to grow and requires little maintenance. This makes it a great first green, while still being interesting enough for more experienced gardeners.
Next up we have kale Kale is super hardy and many varieties can survive into the winter and endure frosts. This makes it great for growing here in the midwest. I can sow kale early, and not have to worry about it too much.
If you’re looking for an excellent cool weather crop, kale is a great choice. Choose a cold hardy variety, and it’s even possible to have it grow throughout the winter in more temperate climates.
Last up we have spinach. I love spinach because, like lettuce, it’s a very low maintenance plant. Growing spinach is easy, both indoors and out, and freshly harvested is absolutely delicious.
Spinach is known to bolt, but keeping it cool goes a long way to prevent this. Outside of this, most people will have no issues growing this delicious green.