How to grow and harvest salad leaves
Expert advice on growing your own salad
Salad leaves are one of the easiest and trouble-free foods to grow. It’s a great choice if you want to grow something you can use every day but don’t have much, or any, garden space. They can be grown in beds, pots or seed trays, in greenhouses, outside or even on your windowsill.
You can enjoy fresh salad leaves every day. Only the outer leaves are picked, so the plant will carry on growing until you are ready for the next harvest.
Best time to plant salad leaves: March - September
Harvesting season: May - November
Suitable: Balconies, window sills, beds, containers, greenhouses, growbags
Difficulty: Easy, suitable for beginners
In this guide, we’re focusing on cut-and-come-again salad leaves. By harvesting the leaves whilst they’re young, and preventing them from maturing, you’ll be able to harvest the same plant several times.
Baby salad leaves are tender and tasty, and by growing just a few, you’ll save a fortune on pre-bagged shop bought leaves.
At B&Q you’ll find a great choice of salad seeds, including our mixed packets for a vibrant mixture of tasty leaves. These also come on a handy seed tape so you don’t even have to worry about spacing and sowing them evenly.
Loose leaf lettuces come in a huge variety of flavours, colours and textures. Easy to grow and harvest, many of them would be difficult to find from a commercial producer. Which you choose to grow, and how many, is entirely up to you. Here are some of our favourite mixes:
Alfresco Mixed – Red and green leaf lettuce with arugula, endive and radicchio to give a true Mediterranean flavour
- Lettuce Red Oak Leaf
- Salad Rocket
City Garden Mixed – Traditional mix of red and green lettuce that’s easy on the palette
- Lettuce Annapolis
- Lettuce Sulu
Endless Summer Mixed – Heat resistant and late bolting all lettuce mix that performs well through summer and does not develop a bitter taste
- Lettuce Red Cross
- Lettuce Super Jericho
Global Gourmet Mixed: Red and green leaf lettuce with mixed spicy Asian greens
- Chrysanth Shungiku
- Mustard Ruby Streaks
You don’t need garden space to grow your own salad leaves, as long as you have a sunny window sill you’ll be fine. If you have a vegetable patch with some space, these are a great way to fill it up too.
If you want to, you can grow them in trays on your patio or balcony, or to make the job even more simple, you could just use a grow bag.
The most important elements to consider is making sure they get sunlight, and the soil is well drained.
If you sow your seeds in small batches every 2-3 weeks you have a steady supply of fresh salad.
Fill your seed tray or pot with peat-free compost and remove the excess with a tamper.
Gently firm and level off the compost with your tamper.
Pour some of the seeds into the palm of your hand, and evenly sprinkle them over the top of the compost.
Cover the seeds with a thin layer of compost using a sieve or colander.
Put the tray onto a window sill or sunny spot, making sure you keep them well watered. They should be ready to start harvesting in 6 to 8 weeks depending on the variety of salad leaves you’ve planted. Check the seed packet for full details.
Rake over the bed so it’s even and level & dig in some peat-free compost.
Place your piece of timber where you want your first row of seeds to be. Use a garden cane to draw a 1cm to 2cm deep drill in the soil, using the timber as a guide.
Sprinkle the seeds gently in the drill and cover them over with the compost before watering.
After 2 to 3 weeks you’ll be able to see if you’ve sown too many seeds in one area. If you’ve got a crowded bed or container, you’ll end up with smaller plants because they’ll be competing with each other.
Work your way through your plants and thin them out using your thumb and forefinger, ideally leaving a 2cm gap between each one.
Slugs and snails
Particularly in damp weather, slugs and snails can decimate your lettuce crops. Eco-friendly deterrents include sprinkling eggshells or grit around plants, lining containers with copper slug tape and planting crops slugs hate in with your lettuces – try onions or garlic. The best solution is picking them off by hand and feeding them to the birds.
Your leaves will be ready to harvest when they are 10cm to 15cm tall. Using a pair of garden scissors, find the leaf you want and cut it off, being careful not to remove the growing tip.
The growing tip is the delicate part of the plant right in the middle of the leaves, which they grow out of. If you cut this off the plant won’t grow any more leaves.
The key to successful loose-leaf salad plants is to keep picking, as this will encourage growth by giving space for new leaves. You can choose to pick a little and often, or pick more but less frequently – any extra leaves can always be put in a plastic bag after washing and stored away in the fridge.
After two months or so of being picked over, loose lettuces will start to bolt and develop a taller central stem.
You can still pick their leaves, though they may be quite bitter. If you have enough younger plants to maintain a succession of leaves, then it is best to remove the plant: hold it firmly at the bottom of the stem and rotate it until it comes clear of the ground along with a few of its larger roots, then tap off any excess soil.
The plant can go in the compost bin, while the bed or pot can be leveled off and tamped down, ready for the next sowing or planting.