I’ve often wondered why lettuce and spinach aren’t summer crops. Whose idea was it to give us all those sweet, juicy tomatoes and fresh, crisp cucumbers in the summer, but no lettuce or spinach to go with them?
Sure, there are ways to extend the life of your spring greens by giving them more shade or less sun. But… come summer, they’re well on their way to bolting.
For those of us longing for leafy greens even when it registers 90°F outside, all is not lost. You can still grow a summer salad bed without any tricks!
Edible Red Leaf Amaranth
Also known as Chinese spinach, edible red leaf amaranth grows quickly — especially in hot, hot weather — and can be harvested a month after sowing. It’s a cut-and-come-again crop that can grow over 6 feet tall and produces all season long for me. It also packs a nutritional punch, beating out beet greens, spinach and chard in calcium, niacin and iron content. As my favorite summer salad green, it tastes like a very mild kale. The deep red color is also beautiful against all the other greens in a salad bowl.
The name alone gives a good clue that this vigorous leaf is long-lasting. But the name is also misleading, as perpetual spinach is not a spinach at all — it’s actually a member of the beetroot family known as chard. (Chard produces the same leafy tops as beets, but does not form a swollen root.) However, it tastes more like spinach than it does chard. In mild climates, perpetual spinach grows all summer long, over fall and winter, and even through the following spring. It’s a versatile green that should be a staple in everybody’s garden!
This variety of chard is also called rhubarb chard because of its red ribs and stems. While not as long-lasting as perpetual spinach, vulcan chard can tolerate summer temperatures up to 85°F. It’s a highly prolific vegetable and I can never seem to keep up with the amount of leaves my plants put out every week! Even when the leaves are fully mature, they’re still tender and delicately crisp.
This Japanese leaf vegetable is related to the common turnip and is sometimes called mustard spinach (again, not a spinach… who comes up with these names?). I actually grow komatsuna year round because it does equally well in the warmer days of summer as it does the cooler nights of winter. It’s one of the fastest growing greens in my garden, reaching maturity in just a few weeks and producing for several months. The leaves have a mild flavor when young and become a bit more bitter as they become larger. Komatsuna is also great for pickling.
You’ve probably guessed by now that malabar spinach is, of course, not a spinach. It is a tropical perennial vine with bold red stems that loves to climb… and climb… and climb. My malabar spinach actually doesn’t seem to take off until it’s hot and sunny — long after my real spinach is wilting in the garden! The fleshy leaves are slightly rubbery to the touch and are popular in Asian cooking. They add a nice bite to a salad and taste somewhat like mild beet greens.
As a Japanese version of Chinese cabbage, Tokyo bekana is a type of mustard that looks like lettuce. Confused yet? It’s a cut-and-come-again crop that grows quickly and can be harvested in the baby leaf stage, or left to grow into large, frilly leaves. The flavor becomes more brassica-like as the leaves mature, so if you prefer a milder mustard taste, use them as baby greens. Tokyo bekana grows best in mild summer climates.
This mustard green, part of the Chinese cabbage family, looks a lot like tatsoi but with savoyed (garden speak for wrinkled crinkled) leaves. It’s not the type of green you would think to put in a salad, but the young leaves (stems and all) are delicious raw. Because of the cucumbery/mustardy flavor, yukina savoy pairs well with citrus. It seems to favor any type of growing condition from warm to cool, and lasts all summer long in my zone 10b climate.
Despite being a Japanese mustard, mizuna is neither hot nor bitter. The saw-toothed leaves and tender stems have a slightly tangy flavor when young, and a mildly peppery flavor when mature. Harvest baby mizuna (about 20 days after sowing) to make your own mesclun! Mizuna is technically a cool-season vegetable, though it grows steadily year round for me from 90°F summer afternoons to 40°F winter evenings.
As a member of the sorrel family, it’s also called bloody sorrel, bloody wood dock, bloodwort, or if you prefer a less macabre reference, red-veined dock. Bloody dock is actually a perennial herb that tastes like a tangy spinach. It produces a rosette of green leaves that look like they have little blood vessels running through them. Since the red stems do bleed a bit of color, I use the individual leaves more as an accent in my salads. For being a warm-region plant (hardy from zones 5 and up), bloody dock prefers rather damp conditions, so it’s well suited for areas prone to summer storms.
Butterhead Speckles Lettuce
And if you don’t believe a salad is a salad without your beloved lettuce, you can try any number of heat-tolerant lettuces from my list, such as the Butterhead Speckles variety. I’ve had success growing a few different heat-tolerant lettuces in summer by starting them in late spring (before the weather turns too hot), and keeping them mulched and moist through most of summer.
Do you grow another summer-lovin’ salad green in your garden? Please share!