Sunday, July 01, 2007

How To Grow Your Own Gourmet Lettuce From Seed - It's Easier Than You Think!

Jericho Lettuce In My Garden On May 8th

Looking for lettuce growing tips? You'll find even more in my post, Lettuce and Arugula in the Garden, with Step-by-Step Photos Showing How To Grow Arugula from Seed in Less than a Month. Happy growing!

I don't think about salad the same way normal people do. I've even started eating it for breakfast. You can read more about this obsession on my food and farm blog, Farmgirl Fare, in a post called On Loving Lettuce.

Lettuce was one of the few things I managed to plant on time this year, and am I glad I did. It's an iffy spring crop in southern Missouri. We usually have at least a few days in the 90s in April—which in itself can be enough to ruin your crop—and it's always a toss up as to whether May will behave itself and stay mild or jump headfirst into summer. This year it behaved, and I harvested gorgeous lettuce every day for weeks.

Today I enjoyed the last of my stash in the fridge, and my salads will now be lettuceless at least until early fall. But if you live in a place where summers are mild (oh how I envy you!), it's not too late to plant, and growing your own lettuce from seed is easier than you might think.

Merveille de Quatre Saisons Lettuce on May 8th

You can tuck a little lettuce almost anywhere, even in spots that are mostly shaded. The only pests that touch the lettuce in my organic kitchen garden are ravaging rabbits. If slugs or snails are a problem in your area, a sprinkling of diatomaceous earth on and around the plants should take care of them.

Diatomaceous earth is an all-natural pesticide made of finely ground fossils of prehistoric freshwater diatoms and can be used indoors and out to kill all kinds of creeping and crawling insects. We buy food grade diatomaceous earth in 50-pound bags and feed it to our livestock (and even the dogs) as a natural wormer.

Don’t have a 'real' garden? Lettuce will happily grow in containers, and since it doesn’t require two feet of soil depth, something short and wide is ideal, such as a plastic dish tub or one of the large plastic bus tubs restaurants use to hold dirty dishes.

For years my lettuce planting schedule went like this: start numerous little flats of seeds in mid-winter, only get around to transplanting a small fraction of the tiny seedlings into individual plugs, then only get around to transplanting a small fraction of those into the garden.

I now take a much lazier approach—and end up with a much bigger harvest.

Simply scatter your seeds onto some nice dirt (compost and manure are excellent soil amendments), then sprinkle them with a light layer of soil or compost, barely covering them. Water well, then sit back and wait, daydreaming of the beautiful bounty you are bringing to life.

You can begin harvesting after only a few weeks—just snip what you need with scissors and leave the plants to continue growing. What I've started doing is sowing the seeds very thickly (which virtually eliminates weeds), then as soon as the plants have a few bite-sized leaves I start to thin them out. And I just keep thinning.

I reach in, pluck out a few of the crowded plants from several different spots, and I swear by the next day the remaining plants have already taken over the empty spaces. You can see in this photo how big the plants with more space have already become.

Newly Planted Lettuce Bed On March 21st

One of the best things about growing lettuce from seed is that there are dozens of varieties available. While the phrase 'picture pefect' rarely applies to my garden unless I’m daydreaming, I did do some aesthetically pleasing, taste-test planting this year.

I divided a 4' x 8' raised bed into eight squares and planted a different type of heat tolerant, slow-to-bolt lettuce in each. I separated the squares with rows of French Breakfast and Easter Egg radishes, which are easy to grow and ready in under a month—just be sure to thin the young seedlings so the rest will have enough room to mature.

Apart from the Red Deer's Tongue, a loose head bib type variety believed to have originated in the mid 16th century, that was a no-show, my experiment was an eye-pleasing, tasty success. The other varieties I planted were Buttercrunch, which I adore; Gentilina, an Italian variety with bright green, frizzled, leafy heads; Jericho, a crisp, sweet cos type bred for the deserts of Israel and pictured at the top of this post; New Red Fire, which has deep red frilly leaves and is extremely slow to bolt; Merveille de Quatre Saisons, a reddish green bibb type; Tom Thumb, which produces a 6" to 7" dark green butterhead in 47 days; and Winter Density, a compact 8" Romaine with thick dark green leaves full of flavor.

Can’t make up your mind which kind of lettuce to plant? Packets of salad mixes are the way to go. I’ve been growing the Rocky Top Lettuce Blend from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds for years.

Pictured here is a 4' x 8' raised bed of Baker Creek’s European Mesclun Mix I planted in late March that went gangbusters (the closeup photo further up is of this same bed). The Baker Creek catalog says this colorful mix, which includes lettuce, radicchio, arugula, endive, orach, mizuna, kale, mustard, and corn salad, is a favorite with market growers and has flavors that range from sweet-mild to sour-hot-tangy. Talk about some truly gorgeous salads.

Another easy to grow from seed heirloom variety of lettuce I like is Freckles, which you can read more about here.

The main thing to remember when growing lettuce is that heat is its bitter enemy— literally. Even a few days in the upper 80s or 90s can have your whole crop tasting terrible. This is very, very depressing.

A partly shaded garden spot is best. The next best thing is to create some comfortable shade for your plants. If the thermometer reads 90 degrees in the shade, it'll feel a whole lot hotter than if you're standing in the sun for eight hours. You can learn more about how I create garden shade in Gardening on the Cheap: How To Quickly and Easily Shade Lettuce and Other Plants and Why You Should.

If you’re growing in containers, you can move them in and out of the sun. Put large, heavy pots on wheeled bases for effortless rearranging—a trick I learned from my friend Cookiecrumb, who successfully grows containers of tomatoes on a small condo patio by rolling them into the sun.

On the other end of the thermometer, lettuce is quite cold hardy and can survive light frosts. I’ve had uncovered lettuce subjected to 24 degrees, and it thawed out just fine once the sun hit it. Floating row cover is wonderful stuff that will give you about 5 degrees of protection, while still allowing light and rain to penetrate. If you treat it well, it can last for years. An old bedsheet draped over your plants is another easy way to protect them.

So what are you waiting for? Sow some seeds today, and you’ll be harvesting glorious green bounty in less than a month. Just make sure you plant enough—I’m sure I can’t be the only lettuce overeater out there.

More posts about some of my favorite things to grow:

Related articles & resources:

The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible, 10th Anniversary Edition by Ed Smith. This has been my favorite gardening book for the past 7 11 years, and I highly recommend it for kitchen gardeners of all levels, especially beginners. It's full of wonderful tips and is always the first book I turn to when I have a garden question.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, a wonderful family owned company located here in Missouri, sells over two dozen varieties of lettuce in packets of 700 seeds for $1.25 to $1.50 each. Salad blend packets contain 1,200 seeds and cost $2.50. I’ve been buying seeds from them for years. They offer over 1,000 types of non-hybrid, non-GMO, non-treated, non-patented and often very rare seeds from all over the world.

Pinetree Garden Seeds in Maine is another company I’ve been ordering from for years. They specialize in smaller packets of seeds for the backyard gardener and offer many varieties of lettuce seeds, including a few of their own special mixes. Packets of 500 seeds sell for just 65 to 95 cents each. They also sell all kinds of reasonably priced garden & kitchen tools and gadgets.

© 2007, the dirty handed foodie farm blog where Farmgirl Susan shares photos & stories of her crazy country life on 240 remote Missouri acres.