Growing Loose Leaf Crops

Leafy greens, like Swiss chard and chicory, are simple to grow in the smallest of gardens and make a crisp addition to a fresh salad.
Bright Red Swiss Chard Stems

Bright Red Swiss Chard Stems

Colorful and tasty, Swiss chard is full of nutritional goodness. It is related to the beet, and comes in a variety of colors. The leafy portion is always a nice green, while the stalk can be white, bright yellow, or a Christmas red.

©2011, Dorling Kindersley Limited

2011, Dorling Kindersley Limited

There’s a surprising range of leafy crops, including spinach and Swiss chard that take little space and are easy and attractive plants to grow. They give a delicious crop of crisp, tasty leaves and stems and most are ideal for smaller gardens and containers. Learn how to make them work for your garden with these quick and simple tips.

How to Grow

Leaf crops are generally quick growing and prefer a sunny spot with well-drained, fertile soil that has been improved with plenty of well-rooted organic matter, such as garden compost or manure. Where space is limited, small crops can be grown in containers.

For an early start, sow under cover into modules in spring, and plant them outdoors when the risk of frost is over. Sow main-season crops directly outside in the soil into drills, thinning them to their final spacing, according to the crop and variety. Cover young plants with fabric if cold weather is predicted. Keep the plants well-watered throughout the growing season, and weed often to reduce competition and encourage quick growth. Some leaf crops can be harvested as whole, mature plants, but most are picked as individual leaves.

Thwart Problems With Mold and Insects

Leafy greens will turn out tall and crisp if they are kept healthy. Be sure to watch out for these troublesome pests when maintaining your garden space:

  • Downy mildew: Causes yellow patches with fluffy mold beneath them on leaves, which may die, weakening plants. Remove infected leaves, and improve airflow.
  • Fungal Leaf Spot: Causes dead patches on the leaves, which may join up, killing larger areas. Remove infected leaves and autumn debris.
  • Slugs and snails: These slimy pests can cause major problems, spoiling leaves or eating whole plants. Apply slug pellets, use beer traps or lay gritty trap barriers. 

Types of Loose Leaf Plants 

Learn more about varieties of this quick-growing crop and how each one might work in your garden with the following guide:

  • Spinach: Packed with vitamins, spinach is grown for its delicious leaves; smooth-leaf varieties can be eaten raw in salads, crinkled varieties are best cooked. Grow it in moist, rich soil, shaded from full sun, and keep it well watered at all times to prevent bolting. Sow seed direct outside, 3/4-inch deep, spaced 1 inch apart in rows 12 inches apart. Thin to 3–6 inches. Consider a range spinach varieties, like ‘Bordeaux’ F1, ‘Crocodile’ F1, ‘Emelia’, ‘Ottawa’, ‘Polar Bear’ F1 and ‘Triathlon'.
  • Swiss Chard and Spinach Beet: The large, crisp leaves can be harvested young for salads or grown larger for cooking. Grow in rich, moist soil; the plants are not as temperature sensitive as lettuce and less prone to bolting. Sow seeds outside in the spring for a summer crop; mid- to late summer for a winter crop. Sow 1-inch deep, 6 inches apart. Choose from a wide-range of Swiss chard and spinach beet, including ‘Bright Lights’, ‘Lucullus’, ‘Perpetual Spinach’, ‘Rainbow Chard' and ‘Rhubarb Chard.
  • Chicory: Sugarloaf chicory and radicchio (red-leaf chicory) produce dense leafy heads in the late summer, which are similar to lettuce but have a bitter taste. Sow outside in early to midsummer, 1/2-inch deep in rows 12 inches apart. Thin the seedlings to 9–12 inches apart. Weed and water regularly, and cut leaves from midsummer once the hearts have formed. Discover chicory varieties, like Radicchio: ‘Palla Rossa Bell’, ‘Rossa di Verona’, Sugarloaf: ‘Borca’ and ‘Pan di Zucchero’
  • Chinese Cabbage: Also known as Chinese leaves, this quick-growing crop is ready to harvest after 6–7 weeks. The cylindrical heads of densely packed leaves are good raw or stir-fried. Sow directly outside in succession from late spring onward, 1/2-inch deep, thinning to 12 inches apart for large heads, 6 inches apart for smaller ones. Consider a range of Chinese cabbage varieties, such as ‘Kasumi’ F1, ‘One Kilo SB’, ‘Richi’ F1, ‘Wa Wa Sai’ F1, 'Wong Bok’ and ‘Pak Choy’.
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