Salad greens are a staple in daily meals. From sandwiches, as a side, and, often, with a handful of other ingredients as a full meal, salad greens are versatile and delicious. Growing greens at home, all year round is so much better than store-bought for a variety of reasons.
Freshness. Salad greens picked and eaten fresh don’t just taste better, they are better for you. In our studies, lettuce grown in the AeroGarden averaged 3 times the vitamin C of a wide variety of conventionally and organically grown lettuces available at the store.
As store bought lettuce is picked, trucked, packed, shipped, sold and then refrigerated at your home, it’s nutrient clock is ticking, and it has less food value as each minute passes. Compare that to salad greens that stay alive on the plant until right before you eat!
Variety. While grocery stores have gotten better in the past few years, they still can’t match the variety available to grow at home. If you like iceberg, or romaine, or maybe a greens mix, you are set. But if you know there is a world of greens out there, exploding with flavors and textures, it’s hard to be satisfied with only iceberg.
Spicy, horseradishy cress is delicious on roast beef sandwiches or in stir fries. Or, try Chinese cabbage in soups. Arugula, grown on your desktop can make a wickedly spicy snack in the middle of the afternoon. And growing your own salads opens up the whole world of greens as possibilities.
Safety. A recent Center for Disease control study (http://health.usnews.com/health-news/articles/2013/01/29/cdc-leafy-greens-cause-nearly-half-food-borne-illnesses) pinned half of the food borne illnesses in the United States on leafy greens. Since when did salad become unhealthy? When you grow your greens at home you know where they have been, what has (or has not!) been sprayed on them, who has touched them and what they’ve been fed.
How to Grow Salad Greens Indoors
For maximum yields of fresh greens in your indoor garden, pay attention to four key factors:
Lettuce is a sun loving plant. While it loves cool weather, it needs lots of direct light to produce big yields.
In fact, even with great indoor lighting, you usually won’t get the tight, balled heads of lettuce you are used to seeing in stores. It’s ok though, as that allows us to harvest individual leaves, instead of heads, in what the British call a “cut and come again” style. It extends harvest periods for months!
To see the difference that light makes, look at these two photos of lettuce with good light, and lettuce that is struggling to find enough.
Simply put, without enough light you just won’t get yields that reward you with enough lettuce to make it worthwhile.
That said, what kind of light is best for lettuce? In general, fluorescent lights and LED’s do really well. Lettuce really likes the cool, blue light that fluorescent’s make possible, and the cooler running temperature keeps the growing space in the right range for cool-temp-loving lettuce. Big lights like HPS or metal halide tend to run too hot and the color spectrum tends toward the red, which causes lettuce to bolt. LED’s can grow lettuce very well, and you can find panels that give enough blue light for the lettuce to thrive.
Growing media is the stuff that plants root into that helps support them and acts as a “medium” through which they get water and nutrients. The best known medium is, of course, dirt. Hydroponic media range from clay pebbles to gravel to peat-based sponges to systems that have almost no media, like raft hydroponics or the AeroGarden.
The main advantage of working with soil-based media is found in their simplicity. People understand dirt. You drop seeds in, keep it moist, and up come plants. Included among the downsides to dirt are: comparably slow rates of growth, mess, and greater frequency of watering.
Hydroponics is great for lettuce. As you can see in this video, hydroponics provides about a 3X boost in growth rates compared to growing in soil. That’s the difference between two salads a week and six, to put some simple math on it.
One of the great things about lettuce is its ability grow in simple “raft” hydroponic systems. In these systems, a raft of foam is floated on top of a nutrient reservoir. Lettuce loves “wet feet” and can grow well in these low oxygen conditions. Raft systems are easy to build and a great intro to hydroponics.
A final advantage to hydroponics is just the ease of watering. Lettuce really loves “wet feet” and it’s easier to achieve consistently in hydroponic systems.
Here in Colorado, our season for harvesting lettuce lasts about 3 weeks in the spring and another 3 in the fall. We move from too cold to too hot almost overnight. Greens in general are early season, cool weather crops — you can plant them outdoors and they will live under light snows. But they absolutely hate the heat. Those tender leaves quickly turn stiff and bitter when temperatures rise near 80.
The short season in Colorado is one reason to grow most greens indoors, year round. It’s pretty easy to keep at least one room in the house in the 65 to 75 degree temperature that greens love for most of the year. If your salad greens are stretching, bolting, getting bitter, and “going to seed,” check your temperature. If the nutrient solution or ambient air temperature is over 80, that’s likely your problem. Move your garden to a cooler room for best results.
There are literally hundreds of varieties of greens available to try, all with different flavors, shapes, colors, growth habits and potential yields. Some, like AeroGrow’s Salad Greens mix, will sprout in 18-24 hours, and some take up to a week or more. They move from tender sweet butterheads, to crispy romaines, earthy arugulas to spicy, textured cresses. Our highest yielding seed kit in the AeroGarden is the Salad Greens kit. You can literally start to harvest for sandwiches in about 2.5 weeks, and small salads at 3 weeks. Our custom kit choice lets you grow all our varieties to see which ones you like best, or create your own custom mixes. AeroGrow offers a wide variety of greens, most of which are hard to find in stores, or grow your own with one of our “Grow Anything” kits. AeroGardens all grow greens well, but for highest output, always use one of our Ultra or Extra gardens. The “Extra” lights deliver higher yields. Current AeroGarden pods available include:
And if you do grow in soil or another hydro set up, experiment with varieties and have fun!