Lettuce is the most popular salad vegetable. Even though it’s easy to get from the grocers, creating a healthy and consistent lettuce patch might be harder than you think – especially if you are gardening for the first time.
The same applies to other popular salad vegetables like cauliflower, cabbage, and broccoli. Starting your vegetable garden with alternatives increases your chances of enjoying a homegrown salad. It also brings diversity to your table meaning that you won’t get bored by eating the same salad vegetables day in day out.
Hardy, Easy to Grow, Full of Nutrition
First time gardeners might not have the skill or the patience needed to grow basic salad vegetables in sufficient volumes. Moreover, you might be eager to try something new since after all, you’ve been having lettuce, cabbage and broccoli from the grocery in your salad before you started your veg patch.
This dilemma is what pushed me into looking for a variety of vegetables that are not only easy to grow (some even grow as weeds) but also give different and interesting tastes that will keep you looking forward to your next serving of vegetables.
Here are my top ten alternatives that are beginner friendly.
1. Sweet Leaf (Sauropus Androgynus)
This is a perennial leafy green herb popular in Malaysia. It grows best in hot and humid weather but will grow slower in cooler environments. It also prefers heavy clay soils whose pH tends towards acidic.
If you live in cooler places, you can grow it throughout the year as long as you put it in a heated greenhouse. Otherwise, you can grow it towards the edge of your lots and prune it often to activate the growth of new and tender shoots.
Pick the fresh shoots as they are the most tender. With some sources advising against eating sweet leaf raw, it would be wise to season your tender leaves in advance to make it ready for consumption. Don’t use it in smoothies or consume the tough leaves as they can harm your stomach.
The fresh leaves at the top 15cm of stem tips taste like fresh garden peas but have a nutty twist to it.
ProTip: If you live in a hot and humid area, grow it around the edges of lots and trim it into a hedge. You will have a constant supply of low maintenance salad veges.
2. Lebanese Water Cress (Fools Cress)
This is a very easy to grow perennial evergreen herb that grows well in pots or shallow ponds. This gives a lot of cultivation flexibility meaning that you don’t have to allocate a lot to it.
It will easily grow on water ponds, grows in a pot on the balcony or even an old abandoned aquarium with some sandy soil at the bottom.
Once it catches on, the fern-like plant spreads fast and will provide you with more than enough leaves for your salad. However, it can easily spiral out of control if you introduce it to a swampy garden or a pond. Grow it in a pot or an isolated pond to control it best.
Lebanese cress has a faint carrot flavor and a hint of cucumber like taste. The leaves look resemble carrot tops and relating the two in flavor makes some sense. You can use it to garnish your meals or make it a foundation for your salads.
3. Chickweed (Stellaria Media)
Chickweed loves cool shady moist conditions making it a good choice for people living off the tropics and don’t want to set up more greenhouse space. It intercrops well with other tall plants that form a wet season canopy to provide the shade it needs. It is even hardy enough to grow through some winters in ideal conditions.
Nonetheless, it is most abundant in spring and autumn (it won’t survive the hot summers if you don’t have cover crops to protect it). Once established, it will mature, flower and spread seeds in under 13 weeks.
Its stems branch out and spread out creating a thick foliage with the tender leaves and star shaped flowers that are ready for harvesting.
Harvest young leaves and tops, wash them and throw them into your salad. The leaves are soft, crisp and with an earthy succulent taste.
ProTip: In the ideal conditions, chickweed will seed and propagate with reckless abandon. Lawn keepers spend fortunes trying to keep it off the grass. This means you won’t have a hard time establishing enough for your salad bowl.
4. Stinging Nettle
This won’t be a salad foundation but it is a great way to add flavor to your bowl. Growing it is easy as it often catches on like weed. Since you won’t consume huge amounts, take care and only plant and prune it often to keep it under control.
When harvesting the leaves, ensure that you wear some protective gardening gloves to avoid being pricked.
Cooking or drying stinging nettle disables the formic acid that makes it so irritating to the skin. In our case, dry it out in the open by tying bunches to your porch or a line strung out in the open. Once it is dry, crush the leaves and douse them over a salad to add flavor.
5. Good King Henry (Poor Man’s Asparagus)
Poor man’s asparagus has graced many vegetable gardens in central and southern Europe for decades. Its resilience made it a perfect vegetable for peasants. The same characteristic makes it a beginner friendly salad garden vegetable.
It is so prevalent to the extent that some people consider it a weed.
When harvested young, the arrow shaped leaves taste like spinach but will get bitter as they mature. Other than just ending up in your salad, you can:
- Cook the leaves and eat them in larger amounts as you would spinach, kales or cabbage
- Harvest the seeds, dry them and mill them into baking flour
- Harvest its roots and cook them
- The flowers can be harvested and prepared as you would broccoli
Growing Good King Henry for the first time needs some preparation. Check out this guide on how to set up a patch by simulating its native habitat grow cycle in case you want to grow it in a different climatic region.
6. Land Cress (Barbarea verna)
Land Cress is an easy to grow peppery green that grows well in pots. It does well in moist soil and doesn’t mind partial shade. It takes a couple of weeks before the leaves are ready for your table.
If you live in temperate regions, land cress will grow all year round unless you have very cold winters. It will flourish fast immediately it starts warming making it a great winter and early spring vegetable.
There are wide variations of Land Cress that though not as ferociously growing as its relative, Lebanese Water Cress, still makes an easy to establish alternative salad vegetable for first time gardeners.
It has a peppery taste that is similar to what your will get from spinach or kale. You can eat it raw in a salad or cook it lightly. Land Cress also produces yellow edible flowers. You can also gather its seeds and sprout them before throwing them into a salad.
7. French Sorrel
French Sorrel has a sharp lemon like taste that can be overwhelming when consumed alone in huge volumes. Originally, it belonged to the soup pot and the French would swear by the lemony tang it adds to a meal.
However, if you pick the leaves while they’re still young, they are less aggressive and you can use them in your salad.
Sorrel grows best in rich loamy soil that is under the sun. Poor soils or shade makes the leaves smaller but still usable.
If you let the plant sit and mature, it soon produces flowers and by now, the leaves might be too lemony for your liking. They can still garnish a salad if used in moderation. You can also sauté the flower heads and use them to garnish other meals.
ProTip: French Sorrel has high oxalic acid concentrations in its leaves hence the name Oxalis in some places. Using it in moderation to complement your salads and cooking it when possible will help you avoid oxalic acid complications.
What is easier to grow than a vegetable that is weed? Nothing. Nothing I tell you! Purslane is a delicious green weed that will start flourishing as soon as temperatures start rising after winter. Of course you will have to sow it first before it starts regenerating each year.
The good thing about this weed is it is chock full of nutrients and has a captivating savory, slight lemon and undeniably sweet taste.
You can use portions of the plant in your salad but be keen not to exhaust it as it is young. As it catches on, harvest huge patches of the plant for preparation. You can sauté, puree and freeze it for later use.
If you don’t pull out most of the plant just before it flowers, it will over-seed the region and can easily take over your garden. Keep a plant or two for controlled regeneration.
This Thai vegetable covers the ground and loves moist soil or even swampy standing water. It resembles sweet potato but its leaves are more palatable than those of the sweet potato. Since it does well on swampy ground, you can establish a patch on otherwise unused ground or on your grey water soak pond.
If you want to make a salad, go for the youngest leaves at the very top of each vine. You can throw them into a salad and enjoy them right away.
You can pick more leaves and stems, steam or stir-fry them real fast and serve them right away if you want to add more flesh to other dishes.
Last on the list is Choko, a vine plant that can crawl up trees and fences making it a good option if you don’t want to set aside a specific garden patch for them.
If you want them in your salad, look for its tender tips, the flowers and the fresh curly tendrils. You can also consume the fruits if you slice them up.
The only problem is Chokos can be a bit hard to get going. However, once the plant is established, it is zero maintenance and produces so much foliage you can use it to feed animals in your farm.
Preparing Your Salad for Eating
Even though raw veges are nutritious, you have to prepare them well since our digestive system isn’t tailored to extract nutrients from raw vegetables to the fullest. Ruminants achieve better nutrient extraction thanks to their ‘extra stomach’ that ferments green plants in a pre-digestion preparation process.
Humans can do some pre-digestion by dressing the salad right. The easiest salad dressing would be some oil and vinegar. Even though the salad makes the vegetables less crispy, you will get more nutrients from them in the long run.
You’ll be better off if you pick young and tender sprouts from your plants for salads. However, there are times when tough leaves are inevitable.
In this case, throw in the tougher batch into your dressing for an hour or more before adding tender portions. This will tenderize the tough veges without harming your more delicate ingredients.