Monday, January 5, 2009

LETTUCE: A Rugged Delicacy

When I first started growing lettuce I tried to find the varieties I was familiar with from the grocery store.  That was an impossible quest and rightly so.  The typical grocery store lettuce is a rugged plant that is bred to withstand field conditions, harvest, bagging, boxing, shipping over significant distances, display and an hourly 'rain' on the grocers' shelves.  The lettuce that we can grow in our gardens needs to withstand a little leaf picking or 'mowing', a gentle wash and then being tossed into a salad hours, if not minutes, after picking.  Our homegrown lettuces come in a mind-boggling assortment of plant and leaf shapes, colors, flavors and growing habits. They have distinctive names like Flashy Trout's Back, Frizzy Headed Drunken Woman, Merlot, Outredgeous and Black Seeded Simpson.  They all prefer cool weather, can tolerate light frost, and thrive in partial shade.  Some varieties stand the heat of summer better than others.  There are romaines, leaf, lollo, bibb, butterhead, and crispheads - just to name a few types of lettuces.  Most all of them can be cut back or have leaves pulled off when they are young, and they will continue to grow.  We call those 'cut and come again' types.  At some point, though, you should let them go and harvest the entire plant when it reaches maturity.  
Lettuce in general has a modest root system and will grow as big as the space will allow.   That is why they do so well in smaller containers on our deck or patio.  If the roots are kept cool, they will thrive to a size consistent with their environment.  A half-barrel in a corner that receives some sun and a nice breeze makes a great habitat for lettuce.  You can also under plant lettuce seed so that the little seedlings are just coming along when you pull up the larger plants.
We are planning to make a lot of salad and lettuce bowls for sale at the early spring farmers' markets.  So today I started about 1600 seeds of many varieties.  They will emerge quickly and be transplanted into single pots, six packs and a variety of bowls.  The cool weather is fine with them as soon as they have germinated and - as an added bonus - their mortal enemies (slugs, snails, aphids) are dormant this time of year.
If you haven't grown lettuce before, give it a try.  The plants are hardy and the leaves are tasty.  They transplant easily and will thrive in a limited space.  They come in a wide assortment of colors and shapes and make a gorgeous display - almost too good to eat.  But eat them, please - they will grow back.  

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