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Have a taste for tangy greens? Now is the time to plant baby lettuces, arugula and mustards

Have a taste for tangy greens? Now is the time to plant baby lettuces, arugula and mustards
Trim mesclun lettuces when they're young and tender for a continuing supply of tasty greens. (Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)

They call it mesclun in France, that mix of tender, tangy and oh-so-tasty baby greens that includes leaf lettuces, arugula, mustards and kale.

Mesclun mixes are pricey, but in salad-hungry Southern California there’s no reason why anyone with a spot of yard or a few large pots can’t easily grow healthful greens.

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“Lettuces have some Vitamin C and good dietary fiber, but as far as nutrition goes, your greens have all your vitamins and minerals,” says organic edibles grower Tom Yost of Carol Gardens in Riverside. “And instead of bolting [going to seed] like lettuce does when it gets a little warm, greens are going to grow for a much longer period.”

This is an excellent time to plant greens, which crave cooler temperatures and are quick and easy to grow even from seed, said Mike Irvine, associate home and garden editor for Sunset magazine.

Nippy temperatures make greens such as kale sweeter and tastier, Irvine said. Conversely, SoCal growers need to keep an eye out for multiple hot days, which cause the young plants to bolt and turn lettuce leaves bitter.

A final bonus point: Many greens are eye candy for your garden, Irvine said. Red-veined sorrel, for instance, is a striking plant that adds lemony flavors to salads and stews. And many mustard and kale varieties have showy purple or red leaves that brighten any winter landscape.

Plant now and you can harvest tender leaves for holiday salads.

Find the sun. The sun rides lower in the winter sky, so make sure your planting area is getting six to eight hours of sun.

Amend your soil with compost and a good, all-purpose fertilizer. Start with fresh soil if you’re planting in pots.

Watch your water. Keep the ground moist, especially during temperature spikes, but be careful not to overwater. Wet leaves in the cool months can lead to mildew and rot.

Transplants or seeds? Most greens grow easily from seed, but transplants give you a head start. In SoCal, most nurseries will hold off on stocking lettuces and other greens until late October/early November to avoid hot temperatures.

Plant lettuces, arugula, mustards and other greens now for tangy holiday salads.
Plant lettuces, arugula, mustards and other greens now for tangy holiday salads. (David Marsden / Getty Images)

Get ’em young. For salads and sandwiches, pick leaves when they’re young; greens get more pungent and/or bitter as they mature. Older leaves can be used in soups or stir fry.

Irvine’s favorites for kale include Tuscan or Toscano varieties, (a.k.a. Dinosaur Kale), Red Russian with its blueish purple leaves, and Scarlet Kale, “a frilly, ruffled guy great for making chips.” Bonus: These kales are beautiful in the garden too.

The more the merrier! Plant a variety of loose-leaf and heading lettuces, Irvine suggests. “They’re easy to grow in winter, and you can almost cut them to the ground and get a second flush of growth.”

Ask your nursery about the varieties it offers. For seed, Irvine recommends the Kitazawa Seed Co. in Oakland and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in Petaluma, as well as Adaptive Seeds in Oregon, which offers organic seeds for short-season climates.

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