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Extend the growing season with leafy lettuces planted in the fall

URBANA — When people think of fall, harvesting lettuce rarely comes to mind; However, late summer is a great time for gardeners to start planting lettuce, arugula, endive, or other leafy greens for salads, says Nancy Kreith, a horticulture educator at the University of Illinois Extension. Not only are these plants quick and easy to grow when temperatures start to drop, but they also add a significant source of nutrients to your diet.

“Most leafy greens are high in vitamins A and C, potassium, calcium, and fiber, and low in calories,” says Kreith. “Studies have shown that lettuce is high in antioxidant compounds — red leaves are the highest — that help fight certain types of cancer.”

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When growing leafy lettuce, transplants are not as easy to come by in late summer as they are in spring. The best option may be to plant seeds directly in the garden bed. Grafts can be planted in the ground in early to mid-September and seeds should be planted in late August to early September. See seed packets for specific planting dates for your region. No-till is a great method for most leafy greens, considering many go from seed to harvest in under 45 days.

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Whether you plant seeds or transplants, loosen the soil first, add granulated organic or synthetic all-purpose fertilizer, plants and water. For transplants, carefully spread out the roots, place the plant in a hole and lightly firm the soil around the base of the plant.

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For seeds, dig a shallow trench, add a sprinkling of seeds along the row and lightly cover. Be careful not to plant the seeds too deep.

“Gardeners should think about what types of greenery suit their tastes when choosing what to plant,” says Kreith.

This list of some common leafy salads is a good place to start this fall.

  • Green lettuce is known for its mild flavor and grows in loose clumps.
  • Red leaf lettuce adds color to your diet, is high in antioxidants, and has a shorter shelf life.
  • Lettuce (Bib or Boston) grows into a soft head with delicate, rounded leaves and is known for its mild, buttery flavor.
  • Arugula grows very quickly and is often harvested as baby leaves. It has a distinct peppery flavor and is quite hot. Harvest this greenery before it becomes overgrown and hairy.
  • Mizuna is flavorful, not as tender as most leafy greens, and adds texture to salads with its deeply cut, fringed leaves.
  • Japanese red mustard has a pungent flavor with notes of pepper, garlic and mustard. It should be harvested as baby leaves for use in salads. Larger leaves are often used in stir-fries.
  • Baby bok choy has a mild, refreshing flavor and a crunchy, celery-like texture. You can harvest the outer, more mature leaves of this greenery as needed, or wait until the loose head has matured and snip off the entire plant at the base.
  • Belgian endive is pale yellow in color and has a dense, long head of crisp leaves. It can be added to salads but is often used for wraps or other appetizers.
  • Curly endive (Frisée) has beautiful, ruffled, yellowish-green leaves with a strong, slightly bitter taste.

For more vegetable growing information, contact your local Illinois Extension County Office at go.illinois.edu/ExtensionOffice.