Growing Leafy Greens in Your Southern California Garden

A collage of different types of vegetables.

Written by Susan B.

This is a glorious time of the year for Southern California vegetable gardeners. Our Northern and Eastern neighbor states may be starting to experience snow and sub-freezing temperatures. But our mild climate is ideal for growing leafy greens, and you’ll be able to continue to grow many of them throughout the winter. And most leafy green vegetables are fast growers, so you won’t have a long wait from planting to harvest.  Let’s look at the best greens to grow now.

Arugula (Eruca vesicaria)

Arugula, which is also known as Rocket, is a member of the Brassicaceae family. It is native to the Mediterranean. It is a fast grower, so it is crucial to harvest the leaves when they’re young. Arugula has a naturally peppery flavor, but the more mature the plants get, the more intense that flavor gets. Arugula is easy to grow – in the ground and containers. Arugula is super easy to grow from seed. Broadcast your seeds over planting rows, allowing about 10-inches between the rows. Seeds germinate in a few days and depending on the cultivar, and you should be able to harvest leaves within 25 to 40 days. 

Arugula needs soil rich in humus, and that has a pH level of between 6.0 and 7.0. It also needs soil that drains well. To get a continuous harvest, sow seeds every two to three weeks.  Arugula grows best in full sun, but if temperatures get too hot, it will flower and bolt quickly. The plants are still edible, but the taste will be strong and unpleasant to many people.

Swiss Chard

Swiss chard is an ideal leafy green to grow now in Southern California. It grows equally well in warm and cool weather, but it can also withstand freezing temperatures (although we’re not likely to experience that.) Chard is essentially a beet – minus the root vegetable portion of the plant. It has thick, fleshy stems and broad, textured leaves. It is packed full of nutrients, 

Plant chard in 15-inch wide rows. Scatter seeds along the length of the row. You will need to thin the leaves once the seedlings are several inches tall. You can use the leaves of the seedlings you thin just as you’d use mature leaves. You’ll thin the seedlings to allow a distance of between 6-and-10-inches between each plant. 

You can harvest chard leaves when they are about six inches tall. Cut the stems, leaving a one-inch portion of the stem above the ground. The leaves will regrow, so you can continue to harvest the leaves and stems as they reach the desired height. 

Swiss chard will grow faster and taste better if it is grown in richly fertile soil. Soil should also be consistently moist. To ensure proper fertility, add aged manure and well-rotted compost (or both) to the soil before planting. Also, add fertilizer with a ratio of 5-10-10 to the soil when you plant your chard seeds or starter plants. 

Kale (Brassica oleracea var. acephala)

Kale is sometimes considered a primitive cabbage. And the word acephala, which refers to the variety, translates as headless. Kale is supposed to be a more abundant source of vitamins and minerals than any other vegetable. And like chard, kale can withstand cold temperatures. Cold weather (even frost) may improve the taste of kale. Kale is believed to be native to the Mediterranean – or parts of what used to be known as Asia Minor. 

Kale is easy to grow from seed, and its seeds sprout quickly – like radish seeds. Kale plants get big, so you’ll need to thin them. Allow 12-to-18-inches between plants, and place rows 18-inches apart. Kale needs a lot of nitrogen during its early growth phases. Alfalfa hay serves a double duty function because it works as both a fertilizer and a mulch. Kale typically takes between 65 and 75 days to be fully mature. But you can harvest the lower and outer leaves as early as 30 days. Pick the leaves when they are between 5-and 8-inches long. 


Lettuce is one of the easiest vegetables to grow. And it’s a leafy green that keeps on giving because you can harvest the outer leaves as they mature while waiting for the inner leaves to be ready for harvest later. Plant lettuce in places where you grew warm weather crops to optimize growing space. Before planting, turn the soil over, and amend it with well-rotted compost and aged manure. Before you plant, water the soil to 18-inches below the surface. Allow soil to sit for several days before you plant the lettuce seeds. 

Our modern lettuce is adapted from wild lettuce that the Egyptians ate. Now all lettuce cultivars are divided into five categories based on the shape of the lettuce head. 

#1. Crispheads/Icebergs

#2. Batavian/Summercrisps 

#3. Butterhead/Bibb/Boston

#4. Romaine/Cos

#5. Loose-Leaf/Oakleaf

Butterhead and Romaine hybrids are best for fall and winter. They are more tolerant of cold weather. And they’re less likely to rot in wet conditions. Looseleaf is best for what is referred to as the “cut-and-come-again” method. If you harvest the outer leaves, the inner leaves continue to grow to harvest them later. 

Lettuce seeds need light to germinate. After you plant them, cover the ground or top of your container mix with ¼-inch of soil. Plant leaf lettuce in rows that are four inches apart. Plant Cos and loose-headed varieties in rows that are 8-inches apart. Lettuce doesn’t mind being crowded, so you won’t need to thin your seedlings. Lettuce needs a consistent dose of nitrogen. Alfalfa meal is easy to find, and it is an excellent option. You can use it as both a mulch and fertilizer. Maintain moist soil for your lettuce, but be sure the soil has excellent drainage. 

Turnip, mustard greens, and spinach are also excellent leafy green choices to plant in your late fall and winter vegetable garden. Come into one of our stores to check out our inventory of late fall and winter vegetable seeds and starter plants. Our garden experts are always available to help you find what you’re looking for or make suggestions or recommendations.

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