Cooking Gardening Vegetables

There’s More to A Salad Than Lettuce

5 Ways to Enjoy Salad Greens!

 Ashleigh Smith of True Leaf Market

Salads have been a raw and healthy staple since ancient Greece (Greek salad anyone?), yet many people grow bored of the same tired salad bowl over and over. While it’s true you can spice up your ordinary salad by adding fresh fruits, vegetables, and dressings, you can also mix up the types of greens you’re using other than standard green romaine and leaf lettuce. Many blends feature arugula, kale, spinach, mustard greens, cabbage, and even root vegetables, but salads can be so much more. Get creative with Salad Greens, you’ll be glad you did! 

Green salad with flowers.

The next time you’re hosting a meal, try some of these tips for a more nutritious and flavorful experience.

Baby Leaf Veggies

Baby spinach in a bowl.

The spectrum of salad greens goes well beyond the broad scope of mature lettuce, spinach, and kale. Salad greens include almost every stage of leaf development. Just before the broad, leafy structures mature, they enter a tender stage where they’re known as baby leaf greens. These are often included in those yummy gourmet salads that make you realize salad is quite tasty. As baby greens are increasing in popularity, we are seeing a greater selection available in the produce department. Baby greens are often preferred over their mature stages because of the increased taste, tenderness, and vibrant coloration. Harvesting salad greens at the baby leaf stage also increases your garden’s harvestability throughout the season.

For a truly enriching experience, plant a mix of various types of greens for staggered harvests such as different varieties of lettuce, kale, arugula, herbs, mustards, Asian greens, and more. While baby leaf greens are growing in popularity, growing your own mix will create a blend of texture and flavor seldom available anywhere else. And as opposed to mature greens, baby leaf greens can be harvested in less than a month. Tender greens such as the 2022 AAS-winning ‘Bauer’ lettuce thrive indoors, out in the garden, and, most notably, as part of hydroponic systems. Other varieties such as ‘Red Sails’, ‘Ashley’, or ‘Red Oakleaf’ can lend their own unique flavors with a splash of red color. ‘Ashley’ Lettuce will even tolerate warmer weather compared to other varieties. Let this be your year to spice up the salads, burgers, and more that come to your plate.

Edible Flowers

Edible flower salad.

Beyond the greens, there are many flowers that can also spice up your meals. Conveniently enough, these flowers often come from the very plants producing your leafy greens. Some of the most celebrated and flavorful blooms you could harvest belong to arugula, basil, borage, chervil, chives, cilantro, lovage, dandelion, and pumpkin. Blossoms are sure to add some brightness to your bowl in contrast to single-note leafy greens.

When preparing food with flowers, it is most common to use only the petals. In general, you’ll want to remove the pistils and stamens. As they tend to be bitter, that will give a better flavor. Also, it could be safer. That’s because pollen is found on these plant parts and it can sometimes trigger allergic reactions in certain people. If you remove the pistils and stamens, that avoids any issues. In addition to removing these plant parts, you should always wash your flowers with water. This will not only remove dirt and pollen, but will also help to remove any lingering pests. 

After harvesting, edible flowers can be used for up to a week when stored in a refrigerator. Because flower consumption isn’t as popular as eating the rest of the plant, many people are hesitant to try. That’s totally understandable. It may take some time to practice and trust using them, but with time you can gain greater confidence in your ability to cook with raw edible flowers.

Asian Greens

Variety of Asian greens.

Another unique branch of salad greens includes the always-unique Asian greens. These are leafy greens found almost exclusively in a wide variety of Oriental cuisines. They provide vibrant flavors rarely available outside of specialty restaurants. If you’re like me, you may not be very familiar with the nearly endless varieties of Asian greens. The most popular ones are tatsoi, pak choi (or bok choy), mizuna, komatsuna mustard, Chinese cabbage, and Chinese broccoli (gai lan). You have likely had sweet and zesty tatsoi or mizuna before as these greens are often included in packs of mixed greens. Tatsoi is very similar to spinach, though it is crisper and more tender. If you are a spinach fan you may also be interested in trying komatsuna, which is very similar but has a better shelf life. For more of a cabbage taste, try senposai, a hybrid of komatsuna and Chinese cabbage. 

Just like in North America and Europe, Asia experiences all four seasons, and many Asian varieties are therefore adaptable to varying cool, hot, dry, and humid conditions. The 2018 AAS-winning pak choi ‘Asian Delight F1’ is one of the best examples. A cultivar of napa cabbage (Chinese cabbage), it tolerates some of the most challenging garden conditions, yet can still boast doubling the yields of its competitors. Add some extra color to your salads with the 2016 AAS-winning mizuna ‘Red Kingdom’ F1. It can also stand up to the summer heat both as an edible crop and an ornamental for your flower garden.



Microgreen salad.

As with baby leaves, you can harvest many leaf vegetables as microgreens. A microgreen is a plant that you harvest at its seedling stage, well before the baby leaf stage. Underdeveloped sprouts average 10 to 50 times more nutrients and vitamins than fully mature vegetables and greens. The nutrition content will vary depending on what type of seed you are growing, but generally, this is one of the most efficient ways of consuming raw vitamins. Microgreens also have a unique crunchy texture, making for fun variations when added to traditional green salads. 

Always buy microgreen seeds from a trusted source, because not every crop is tasty or even safe to grow as a microgreen. That little seed packet you have lying around might be an ornamental variety, big on beauty, but low on taste. Or it contain seeds treated with a pesticide. And that’s not usually what you want in your plate! So, always grow seeds that the merchant specifically marked for use as a microgreen or sprout.

The best part of growing microgreens is that you can do it from your kitchen counter. Plus, it’ll be ready to harvest in 7-10 days! Microgreens are typically sprouted with the use of soil, but many varieties thrive just as readily in hydroponics. When they have sprouted and are displaying their cotyledons (very first “leaves”), you can simply cut the stem near soil level with scissors. Enjoy them raw!

Microgreens can last 2-3 weeks when stored in optimal conditions. To maintain quality, store microgreens in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Waiting to wash and dry them immediately before use can also promote better shelf life. Some of the most popular types of microgreens to grow yourself are arugula, amaranth, broccoli, cabbage, carrot, kale, and radish. And there are dozens of others.

You can read about producing microgreens for yourself and your family in this article: Growing Food Indoors: Microgreens for Everyone!


Mason jar for sprouts, with sprouts and seeds on a table.

If you enjoy any level of gardening, I think you can appreciate how special seeds are. They transform from this unsuspecting granule into an amazing fruit-producing plant. But did you know, like microgreens, they contain on average 10 to 50 times more nutrients and vitamins than the mature leafy green? Sprouting is the process of germinating seeds for the purpose of raw consumption. You can eat sprouts alone or on toast, in soups, salads, sandwiches, or as healthy alternative finger food. Sprouting is 100% hydroponic, you can do it right in your kitchen, and the sprouts are ready to eat in 2-5 days. 

Unlike pretty much any other plant you grow, sprouts don’t need light except for adding a touch of flavorful chlorophyll. To start, soak your seeds in water for a few hours (depending on the type, size, and climate). Then, continue to rinse 2-3 times a day. Allow some sunlight during the final 12-18 hours if you want. Personally, I prefer using the jar method because all it requires is a reusable mason jar, sprouting lid, seed, and water. But you can also use a tray or sprouting bag for larger quantities and convenience while traveling. One of my favorite aspects of growing sprouts, and even microgreens, is that you can grow fresh food on the go and away from home. This can be especially handy for all you wandering nomads out there.

You can learn all about growing your own sprouts at home in this article: Sprouts: Fresh Home-Grown Greens All Year Long!

Green salad with flowers.

What Will You Make?

If you are like me, you may have disliked salads as a child because of the plain textures of commonly used greens or the same old ingredients. Choosing for yourself the varieties, flavor combinations, and variations of texture can change everything you thought a salad was. Now that we’ve scratched the surface of ways to spice up your traditional salad, what will you make? We can’t wait to see your amazing creations!

This post about salad greens is provided as an educational and inspirational service of the National Garden Bureau and its members.

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

4 comments on “There’s More to A Salad Than Lettuce

  1. Excellent article. By Spring my family is getting very tired of our winter veggies and wants something green and fresh. However, the same old salad every day grows old fast too. Will try some of your suggestions to jazz up our summer salads.

  2. I am finding your articles so interesting and helpful. Thank you.

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