Image: John Valls

In recent years, salad greens have enjoyed a culinary renaissance fueled by the American fascination with local and artisan foods—and a spate of books on the health benefits of French eating habits. At fine restaurants, the standard house salad, with chunks of cucumber, tomato and a choice of five fatty bottled dressings, has all but disappeared, replaced by tender heirloom greens, mesclun greens, baby greens and even microgreens, freshly picked and dressed with the lightest touch of vinaigrette.

These fashionable young greens are the same crops as the adult versions, just harvested at an earlier stage. They are simple to grow and make an easy transition from garden plot to plate. Most leafy greens bolt and turn bitter in hot, dry weather. Thus, early spring is the perfect time to sow: These greens grow more quickly and taste sweetest when daytime temperatures range from 60 to 70 degrees.

Find Your Plot

To grow your baby greens, find a patch of ground that gets plenty of sunshine in spring (a minimum of four to six hours of midday sun is best) and has good drainage. If you have an existing garden bed but the soil is tired or poor, spread 6 to 12 inches of compost onto the surface and work it into the soil. Mushroom compost and composted manures are best, but kitchen-waste compost and broken-down leaf mold are also excellent.

Be especially careful when digging wet soil. Stand on a board to minimize compaction and gently chunk the garden bed, pouring compost into cracks and then leveling the top with a hoe. You can blend it better when the soil dries out a bit later in spring. Note: If you are starting from scratch, you’ll need to prep your soil. (Check out the Down to Earth article for details.)