Grow Your Own Salad!

This quick-and-easy container salad garden will start serving up fresh goodies in as little as a few weeks. Pair it with a pot of  cherry tomatoes and you’ll be set for salads for months to come.

To grow cucumbers, you’ll need an outdoor spot where your planter will get at least eight hours of sun a day; if your only available locations get much less than that, stick with just the lettuce and the onions, which will tolerate and even appreciate fewer hours of sun or even some light shade, especially in the heat of the summer.

You’ll need:

1 packet lettuce seeds (or 1 six-pack seedlings from a nursery)

1 pound onion “sets” (or 1 packet onion seeds)

1 packet cucumber seeds (or one seedling from a nursery)

1 64-quart bag organic potting mix;  Organic Mechanics is a good choice

1 bottle liquid organic plant food; try Terracycle’s All Purpose Plant Food

1 20″ x 26″ mixing pan (dimensions are approximate)

A mixing pan makes a great planter because it is inexpensive, long-lasting, provides lots of growing room, and is big enough to keep the soil from drying out as fast as it would in smaller planters and commercial window boxes. Ask for one at your local big-box hardware store.


1. Poke ¼- to ½-inch holes every few inches around the bottom edges of the pan so excess water can drain. (If you put the holes in the flat bottom and then put the planter on a flat surface, it may not drain as well.)

2. Put your planter where you want it and then fill it with potting mix.

3. Water until the potting mix is evenly moist. Top it off with a little more potting mix, adding enough so it comes to about ½ inch below the rim of the planter and making sure the soil surface is level.

4. Plant two cucumber seeds (or the cucumber seedling) in the center. Poke two shallow holes an inch or so apart with your finger, drop a seed into each, and cover. (If both sprout you’ll snip off the smaller seedling after a few weeks, leaving just one plant.)

5. Plant your lettuce in two horizontal rows about 3 inches away from each of the pan’s shorter ends. Use your finger to draw each row and then sprinkle a couple of seeds near each end and in the middle, or plant a seedling in each location. Press lettuce seeds firmly into the potting mix with the ball of your finger, but don’t cover them, as lettuce often germinates better if it has light shining on it.

Water carefully around the lettuce seeds until the seedlings appear and send down roots, so as not to wash the tiny seeds away.

6. Plant your onions along the two remaining sides. Plant six to 12 of your onion sets, or about 12 to 24 seeds (that should keep you well supplied with green onions on a weekly basis) 1 inch from the edge of your container, about 4 to 6 inches apart.

Make sure the pointed end of each set is up and completely buried. Repeat this step once a week, placing the new sets or seeds at least an inch away from onions that are already growing.

7. Water every two or three days to keep the soil evenly moist (in hot, dry weather you may need to water every day). Once a week, feed organic fertilizer according to the label directions.

Time to pick!

• In about three weeks you can gently pull out or snip off extra lettuce seedlings, leaving the most productive plant in each spot, and eat up the “thinnings” in a salad.

A week or two later, you can start harvesting your full-grown lettuce leaves. Gently bend them down and away from the plant so the leaves separate from the stem, leaving the center of the plant and the roots intact.

By harvesting only the outer leaves, your six plants will continue to feed you for many weeks, or even all summer and late into the fall. If the center of the lettuce plants start to grow tall, that means they’re preparing to flower, and the leaves will get bitter. Plant more lettuce seeds right away to replace those plants, and cut the old plants off at the surface of the soil.

• Onions will be ready to harvest in as little as three weeks, a bit longer if grown from seeds. They’re ready to eat when they are as big as you want them. Leave them longer and the bottoms will start to thicken into bulbs. If you continue to plant more sets (or seeds) every week, you will have green onions to harvest all spring, summer, and fall.

• The cucumber will start to flower after about a month, sooner if you planted a seedling, but not every cucumber flower has the potential to grow into a cucumber: The “male” flowers only make pollen and wither, while the “female” flowers (you can see the tiny infant cucumber attached to the back of the bud/flower) accept the pollen and swell into, well, cucumbers.

Plants often make just male flowers for a while and then start making female ones as well; so hang in there, your cukes will come. Let each fruit grow until it is as big as you’d like (use the package description to know their maximum size), but pick them before they start to change color.

Seed Suggestions

Lettuce: Romaine lettuces are always a good choice.  They have more crunch and substance than leaf lettuce and it takes just a few of their large leaves to make a salad. Romaines are also more tolerant of heat and dryness than leaf lettuces. Some  favorite romaine varieties are ‘Green Forest’ and ‘Rouge d’Hiver’; Winter Density is a bibb-romaine lettuce that tolerates both heat and cold, making it good for fall production as well.

Onion: Onions sets are sold at nurseries, garden centers, and even some supermarkets in the spring. Select small, firm bulbs and buy only as many as you want to plant right away. Or buy more than you need, and store the rest in a plastic bag in the crisper of your refrigerator, and they will stay dormant but ready to grow for months. Any variety of onion set will grow into good green onions. A mix of colors is fun if you have the option. If you can’t find sets, any variety of onion seed will do; ‘Evergreen Bunching’ is a good choice.

Cucumber: Look for a variety that has “bush” in the name, as most cucumbers produce long vines. ‘Bush Slicer’ and ‘Spacemaster’ are two good varieties. Some cucumbers are sold as pickling cucumbers, but there is no reason you can’t eat them fresh: ‘Picklebush’ produces tasty one-salad-sized (4″) cukes. The descriptively named ‘Lemon’ cucumber is a tasty short-vine cucumber worth looking for that bears round, yellow fruit.



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