Leafy green crops are an essential part of a good veggie patch. They are fast growing, nutrient-rich and tasty. By growing a mix of different greens you can easily whip up a freshly harvested salad in no time at all. They also go great in sandwiches, and some greens like celery, silverbeet and spinach can be used cooked as well as raw.

 

LETTUCE

 

WHEN TO PLANT: Sow seeds from August through to March. Plant seedlings September through to April.

GERMINATION and PLANTING: Lettuce seeds are usually started in trays or punnets. When sowing the seeds, try to space them out a bit as it's easy to plant them too close together since they're so small.

 

Once the baby lettuces are a few cm tall they can be 'pricked out' (carefully lifted out with a small tool like a skewer or butter knife) and either planted into the garden or planted into trays or small pots if you are not yet ready to transfer them.

 

Lettuce loves water and the soil of the seedlings will need to be watered quite regularly. If you've grown your seedlings inside or in a particularly sheltered area, it pays to gradually introduce them to their new environment by moving the tray of seedlings outside for a few hours at a time at first. This is called "hardening off" and helps avoid shock.

ENVIRONMENT: Lettuce enjoys cooler temperatures compared to many veggie crops. In winter it will enjoy a fairly sunny position, but in summer it can be grown in partial shade as hot temperatures can cause lettuce to bolt. Some varieties are available that are bred for warmer summer conditions.

SOIL: A loose, humusy soil that is well drained yet holds moisture well. It also pays to mulch around lettuces to hold the moisture within the soil and keep it a bit cooler. A bit of well decomposed manure or compost mixed into the soil before planting will give the lettuces a boost of nitrogen, helping with leaf growth.

WATER and FERTILISER: Water regularly, especially in dry weather. If lettuces are not kept well watered they will be more bitter in flavour. Drying out will also stimulate the plants to 'bolt' to the flowering stage, where they will become elongated and bitter. If soil is poor, lettuce can be fertilised with a liquid organic solution like liquid seaweed. It's a good idea to apply this to the soil rather than to the lettuces themselves if you're planning on eating the leaves soon, as liquid fertilisers can contain or promote the growth of various kinds of bacteria.

HARVEST and USE: There are two main kinds of lettuce. The 'heading' varieties, like the common supermarket 'iceberg' lettuce, are usually harvested as a whole plant, and stored in the fridge until the whole thing is used.

 

The looser varieties of lettuce, such as the frilly purple varieties etc., can have the outer leaves harvested individually over a period of time until the plant begins to flower. Loose leaf lettuces are easier to grow than the iceberg types, and since their leaves are darker, they contain more nutrious compounds such as chlorophyll and vitamins.

SPINACH

WHEN TO SOW: For spring harvest, sow seed in early September. For summer harvest, sow bolt-resistant varieties in October through to mid-November. For late summer, autumn and winter harvest, sow from mid-January through to mid-February. Spinach seed germinates best under cool conditions.

 

Like many vegetables, spinach does very well if direct sown. Sow in rows a bit wider than your hoe and keeping the patch weeded is a breeze. However if weeds or garden space are a problem, they can be started in trays and carefully transplanted to a spacing of 10-15cm once they have a couple of 'true' leaves (the leaves that come after the initial cotyledons, or 'seed leaves').

 

ENVIRONMENT: Like lettuce, spinach enjoys cooler temperatures compared to many veggie crops. In winter it will enjoy a fairly sunny position, but in summer it can be grown in partial shade as hot temperatures can cause spinach to bolt. Some varieties are available that are bred for warmer summer conditions.

SOIL: A good humusy soil that is well drained yet holds moisture well. It also pays to mulch around lettuces to hold the moisture within the soil and keep it a bit cooler. A bit of well decomposed manure or compost mixed into the soil before planting will give the spinach a boost of nitrogen, helping with leaf growth.

WATER and FERTILISER: Water regularly, especially in dry weather. If spinach is not kept well watered they will be more bitter in flavour. Drying out will also stimulate the plants to 'bolt' to the flowering stage, where they will become elongated and bitter. If soil is poor, fertilise with a liquid organic solution like liquid seaweed. It's a good idea to apply this to the soil rather than to the plants themselves if you're planning on eating the leaves soon, as liquid fertilisers can contain or promote the growth of various kinds of bacteria.

SEED SAVING: Spring and overwintered sowing bolt and form huge quantities of seed. Spinach is wind-pollinated and readily outcrosses - as such it is best to be only growing one variety of spinach at a time for seed saving (its ok to have other varieites of spinach growing, just pull them out before they produce a flower spike).

 

Spinach produces male, female and hermaphroditic plants. So some plants will not have seeds on them but they are important for supplying pollen to the female plants. Spinach seed heads are sensitive to fungal infection as they start to mature - as such, it is best to be growing spinach seed plants away from where your normal irrigation routine will not wet them.

Spinach seed should be saved from a minimum population of 20 plants. Start with more plants than this and thin out any plants that underperform or bolt early. Early bolting is not a good trait in spinach. The seed stalks ripen unevenly, so delay harvest until the seed stalks are brown. If heavy rains are forecast near the end of seed maturation, harvest the whole plants and hang them upside down somewhere under shelter to finish drying. When dry and brown, cut off the seed stalks and harvest the seeds by rubbing them between your palms.

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