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.
• OAKLEAFS. Though all loose-leaf lettuces can be grown as cutting lettuces, oakleaf varieties are particularly popular because of their distinctive leaf shapes, buttery textures, and sweet flavor. Many are pretty, too, with leaf colors that spark up the greens: yellow-green varieties such as 'Salad Bowl' and 'Pom Pom', bronzy types like 'Red Sails' and 'Cocarde', and real reds like 'Red Oakleaf', 'Red Rebosa', and 'New Red Fire'.
• ROMAINES. Choices include 'Deer Tongue', an heirloom variety with thick, succulent lime green leaves; 'Cimarron', a red-shaded romaine; and 'Freckles', a green romaine with dark red speckles and splotches.
• 'LOLLO ROSSO' TYPES. These are frilly-leafed lettuces, often used as a garnish in restaurants. Leaves of the regular variety are chartreuse with burgundy edges. 'Lovina', an improved selection, has mostly red leaves and is slower to bolt.
• ARUGULA. The favorite gourmet green at restaurants. Extremely easy to grow. Plants bolt quickly, too, so sow seeds in small batches every few weeks.
• MUSTARD. Many varieties; all usually taste pleasant in salads if harvested young. 'Red Giant' is particularly mild and has the additional advantage of burgundy-tinted leaves.
• ITALIAN DANDELION. Tastes pleasantly bitter, like endive or chicory, but requires only a fraction of the space. Harvest when leaves are 3 to 4 inches tall; later, they're too tough for salad.
• MOUNTAIN CRESS (also known as peppergrass or garden cress). Pleasantly piquant. A quick crop; you can harvest leaves in 10 to 14 days. Sow seeds frequently in small batches.
• 'WRINKLED, CRINKLED, CRUMPLED CRESS'. A cross between mountain cress and broadleaf cress, which is a mustard- family green. Adds interesting texture as well as flavor to salads.
• LEEKS AND ONIONS. When harvested young, leaves are tender and mild-tasting.
• NASTURTIUMS. Both flowers and leaves are edible and mildly peppery. 'Empress of India', a scarlet-flowered variety with slightly bluish green leaves, is especially handsome.
Where to buy seed
Plants of some greens mentioned at left, such as arugula, mustard, and 'Red Sails' lettuce, are available in cell-packs at garden centers. Seeds of other varieties are available by mail from the following sources.
• Nichols Garden Nursery, 1190 N. Pacific Hwy., Albany, OR 97321; (541) 928-9280 or www.gardennursery.com. Sells 'Cimarron', 'Deer Tongue', 'Empress of India' nasturtiums, 'Lovina', 'Red Rebosa', 'Red Sails', 'Salad Bowl'.
• Shepherd's Garden Seeds, 30 Irene St., Torrington, CT 06790; (860) 482-3638 or www.shepherdseeds.com. Sells 'Cocarde', 'Deer Tongue', 'Freckles', 'Red Oakleaf,' 'Wrinkled, Crinkled, Crumpled Cress'.
• Territorial Seed Company, Box 157, Cottage Grove, OR 97424; (541) 942-9547 or www.territorial-seed.com. Sells seed of 'Catalogna Frastagli' Italian dandelion, 'New Red Fire', 'Pom Pom', 'Red Giant' mustard.