Salad greens are a great plant to grow with children.
In Melbourne they will grow all year round, though faster at some times than others. They are reliable. You can pick them a leaf at a time, so you get quick results. But they will also wait for next week if you have something else going on.
While lettuces will grow well from seed, it is easier for a beginner gardener to start with seedlings. I prefer to get a mixed punnet, with some red and some green. They all grow a bit differently, and there is variety on show in the garden and on the plate.
Cos and Iceberg lettuces are a bit harder to grow, because they need to grow fast and healthy to form a heart, and you can’t pick them until they are fully formed.
You can grow lettuces in a veggie patch, or on the edge of a bed of flowers, or in a corner of the lawn that you dig out for the season. You can also grow lettuces in a pot. A wide one is best. It does not need to be deep. If there is not much soil in your pot, it is a good idea to add some water crystals.
Like most vegetables, they need soil that is fairly rich in nutrients. Buying a bag of fresh potting mix is the easiest way to make sure your soil will give them what they need. If you are planting into the garden, you might need to pay a bit of attention to how well your soil has been fed. Some Seasol or similar organic fertiliser can help.
It is important to water lettuces regularly and well. If they dry out, they will bolt. That is to say, they will go to seed early. You can tell they are starting to bolt if a central section starts to grow tall and leggy. You may be able to stop it by pinching that part out, and increasing the water supply.
As soon as you have 5-6 leaves on the plant, you can start to harvest one or two leaves at a time. They are sweeter and softer when they are young.
If you let the children pick it themselves, they can cut a leaf with scissors, or you can show them how to pinch off a leaf with their fingers. Occasionally they will pull the whole plant out. Put it back in quickly, tamp it down, and water well, and it will probably survive.
I sometimes add a few leaves from our garden to the fruit platter.
As the plants mature, the leaves will become bigger, tougher and more bitter. You can use them in cooking at this point – they will do as a substitute for spinach or silver beet in most recipes. Or you can let them go to seed, and observe the rest of the life cycle. If you leave at least one plant to go fully to seed, you can collect your own seed, and plant from that next season.