Leafy vegetables like lettuce, spinach or kale can be harvested for an immature (“baby”) leaf when they are 15 to 40 days old as opposed to being harvested for the fully grown vegetable at the conventional 45 to 60 days. At the baby stage they are:
- More tender than the “adult” leaf;
- Automatically bite-sized;
- Visually particularly attractive (especially in combinations of different species).
If you are an experienced gardener you can of course plant any leafy vegetable out in your prepared soil and harvest the result very early.
But even if you have not so far had much to do with gardening or do not have the luxury of an out-door garden you will find that baby salad leaves are quick and easy to grow, even in a pot, growing bag or window box.
Equipment For Growing Baby Leaves
- Container or growing bag – almost any container will do, made from any non-toxic and sturdy material, including wood, plastic, or heavy-duty cardboard. The container should ideally be more than 6 inches deep, have drainage holes or slats in the bottom, and have a surface area of at least a foot square.(though even a 10 inch pot can give the equivalent of several supermarket bags of salad leaves.) Use a separate pot for peas, or sow small patches of each crop in large containers or growing bags.
- Multi-purpose compost for containers
- Seeds (see discussion below)
- Watering can with a fine ‘rose’ head or a spray bottle, or gentle/misting automatic watering system. (A single stream of water from a watering can or hose pipe can leave channels in the compost and disturb the seedlings.)
Seeds For Baby Leaves
A wide variety of vegetables and herbs provide baby leaves that are delicious, nutritious and visually attractive. You need to experiment with what pleases your palate and eye but here are a few suggestions:
- Any conventional lettuce, such as:
- Crisp-head varieties like iceberg (harvested before it makes its big head);
- Butterhead varieties like Bibb, Four Seasons and Black-seeded Simpson;
- Romaine or Cos lettuces like Cimarron or Red Romaine and Vivian;
- Loose leaf lettuces like, of course, Rocket for a sharp, peppery taste but also Deer Tongue, Grand Rapids, Oak Leaf (especially Catalogna);
- Salad seed mixes, a range of leaves from one packet, mild to spicy, conventional to exotic, in one packet;
- Beetroot – deliciously sweet and colourful;
- Broad-leaf Sorel – a tangy lemon flavour;
- Choy Sum (sometimes known as flowering cabbage);
- Cilantro (coriander)
- Corn Salad (also known as Lamb’s Lettuce) – much underrated soft, dark green salad vegetable with a nutty taste;
- Kai-Lan (also known as Chinese Broccoli) – thick, fleshy blue-green stems and leaves;
- Mizuna Greens (also known as Japanese Mustard) – green serrated leaves with a mild mustard flavour;
- Rainbow Swiss Chard – dark green or purple leaves, stems in a multitude of colours to brighten up any dish;
- Pak Choi (or Bok Choy) – large rounded green leaves with pure white stems;
- Peas (grown for the sweet tips of the plants rather than the pods) – dwarf sugar pea cultivars such as ‘Sugar Ann’ have the sweetest taste;
- Spinach and any of its leafy relatives.
Growing Baby Leaves
Growing outside, in conventional beds
Most salad leaf mixes can be sown between March and October, following the steps given below:
- Prepare the ground and rake it;
- Make shallow trenches about 1 inch deep and water along the trench to moisten the soil;
- Spread the seed thinly along the bottom of the trench;
- Lightly fill in the trench, covering the seed.
- Once the seedlings are about an inch tall, thin them out to give them space to grow, (the distance needed will vary depending on varieties grown).
Growing salad leaves under glass or plastic allows them to germinate and get going early in the year and prolongs cropping into autumn and early winter. You can extend your growing season massively with the help of a cold frame, greenhouse, or poly-tunnel.
Growing indoors and/or in containers
Step 1: Prepare container(s)
Fill your container with about three inches of compost, preferably organic and peat-free. Pat the surface down lightly using the bottom of another pot or seed tray.
Step 2: Seed planting
- Scatter salad seeds thinly, allowing 1/3” to 2/3” each way between seeds (often difficult because the seeds are so small) and cover them with a thin layer of compost. Pat down lightly with your hands. (For peas, push the seeds about 2/3” into the compost, about 2” apart each way and smooth over the surface to cover them.)
- Finely spray the surface with water.
Step 3: Germination and growing
From now on keep the surface of the container moist. Water with a fine spray at first, but when the seedlings are taller and stronger, you can take the rose off the can and direct water beneath the leaves.
Note: Feel the compost with your fingertips. It should be moist but if you can see or feel water, then it is too wet. Too much water drowns the baby plants and can encourage pests and diseases. On the other hand, you need to keep on top of your watering since compost dries out easily and is difficult to re-saturate if it becomes too dry which may lead to your plants dying or bolting. (Bolting occurs when the plant is stressed or at the end of its lifecycle and it starts producing flower heads and seeds.)
Place the container in a sunny place on a windowsill or outdoors (but where you can look out for slugs, snails and other critters attracted by juicy seedlings). Seedlings will appear within a week.
Step 5: Harvesting
Baby leaves can be ready for harvesting in 30 to 40 days, when the plants are 2 to 4 inches tall. There are four ways of harvesting your baby leaves, depending on the varieties involved:
- Pull up the entire little plant, rinse the roots and keep in a glass of water for a couple of days as you use the leaves;
- Pull up the entire little plant. Cut off and compost the roots. Eat the leaves as soon as possible.
- Break off individual leaves as you need them;
- Cut patches of leaves with scissors leaving stumps about 1 inch high or trim half the leaves off each plant. Keep watering and the plants should regrow several times. They slow down after you have harvested them a few times, and after that happens, you replace the compost in the growing container and re-seed again.
Peas – Once plants are 8 inches high, harvest the top 2 inches of the stems. In two or three weeks, they should produce more sweet, tender shoots.
Once plants start to flower, put them in the compost bin as leaves will become bitter.
Baby leaves are a joy to grow – and good to eat, James Wong
Microgreens: Health Benefits, Nutrition and How to Grow Them
www.healthline.com › nutrition › microgreens
Grow your own baby salad leaves in a pot / RHS Gardening
www.rhs.org.uk › advice › march-edible-container-idea
Cut-and-Come-Again Lettuce & Salad Greens