It doesn't take much to turn a head of romaine or a prepacked bag of greens into a gourmet first course. Toss in a few burgundy, bronze, or apple green leaves to make it pretty. Then, for zest, add a snippet or two of something peppery like arugula, mustard, or cress.
The same gourmet greens that make a restaurant salad pricey are, surprisingly, among the easiest to grow (they are expensive in markets because they need to be hand-harvested and have a short shelf life). Their seeds germinate quickly; leaves can be harvested when only a few inches high. In fact, young leaves taste best. If you use scissors to snip off only the leaves you need, the plant will quickly grow new ones for additional harvests. Keep cutting until the greens bolt (go to seed) or turn bitter.
To find the best salad enhancers, we asked greens specialists at three mail-order seed companies--Nichols Garden Nursery, Shepherd's Garden Seeds, and Territorial Seed Company--to name their favorites. Then we planted seeds of these varieties in containers as cut-and-come-again crops. With regular watering and periodic feeding with fish emulsion, the plants thrived.
There's no excuse for dull salads. If you have room for a half-barrel, a window box, or even a terra-cotta pot (at least 16 inches in diameter), you have room to grow your own designer salad greens.
Two ways to grow salad greens
As a mix. Combine seeds of all the greens you want to try, then broadcast them over the surface of potting soil for a blend similar to the salad mixes found in supermarkets. Sow mustard after other salad greens have sprouted; this vigorous grower can crowd out everything else.
In rows or blocks, by kind. To customize your salad to your meals--sometimes piquant, sometimes mellow--grow different greens separately. Sow seed in individual rows, blocks, or in concentric circles. This is a good method if you are trying greens you haven't tasted before. If there's one you don't like, it's easy to replace it.