Sunday, January 23, 2011

Start With Lettuce

If you are just getting started with food gardening, I suggest you try lettuce as your first crop. Lettuce is a cool weather crop that is easy to grow. It is almost always eaten fresh and uncooked, and costs more per pound in the market than the majority of other vegetables. It makes good sense, therefore, to grow lettuce at home. The plants grow well in containers and will tolerate some shade, making lettuce a good choice for balcony and patio container gardens. Most lettuce cultivars are ready to harvest within two months. By succession planting, you can have lettuce ready to pick during all but the warmest period of your growing season.
Lettuce will also grow satisfactorily in a solar cold frame throughout the winter here in Zones 7 or 6. (We live right on the transition between these two climate zones, with weather that is typically a few degrees cooler than nearby Knoxville, which is about 300 feet lower in elevation and near the Tennessee River.) One of our major projects for the coming season is constructing a small solar greenhouse for winter vegetable production.
Right now, however, we're gearing up for the coming Spring by starting our earliest cool season crops in the garage under lights. Here's a view of the setup.
Seed flats get light from shop lights and a south facing window.
On the left are lettuce plants started in November, 2010. They went into the cold frame bed today, and should produce an early crop as soon as the day length increases sufficiently. That two months were required for the plants to reach this size demonstrates how the availability of light controls plant growth, even in the absence of below-freezing temperatures. We tend to regard the difficulties of winter cultivation as due entirely to the cold, but plants also need adequate light. This explains why a solar greenhouse will give better results than an indoor system. Even with the sun's illumination, however, some crops require supplemental lighting to produce in wintertime.

Lettuce Cultivars
We've scarcely met a lettuce we don't like and have grown many over the years. We currently have plants of the following:

Lollo Rossa - Frilly, almost lacy, looseleaf with pale green and bronze coloration. Good for cut and come again harvest; produces well in the cold frame.
Red Romaine - One of our favorites. Deep red, loose head of elongated leaves with succulent, sweet ribs. Grows well in all seasons except the warmest part of summer.
Rouge d'Hiver - Green and red looseleaf type selected for overwintering under cover. Does poorly in warm weather. Beautiful leaves are tender and sweet.
Rougette de Montpelier - Buttercrunch type with red and green coloration. Good producer fall through early spring. Individual heads just right for one serving of salad.

All these lettuce plants will get darker when moved to the cold frame.

We find that red pigmented lettuces do better for us in winter than green ones do.

Lettuce seeds keep several years with proper storage. We have the following in our inventory, awaiting longer, warmer days:

Black Seeded Simpson - Pale yellow-green heirloom looseleaf type that was my grandfather's choice. I grow some every year for the nostalgia alone. Easy and reliable mid spring crop that does well in a large container, too.
Buttercrunch - Deep green butterhead with yellow center and fabulous flavor. Best in early spring from seed started indoors. Needs coddling for best quality.
Oakleaf - Pale green loosehead with interesting leaf shapes. Delicious and reliable as a spring crop.
Red Salad Bowl - Bright crimson looseaf type that makes a perfect companion for Black Seeded Simpson, whether in the ground or in a container.

Two varieties we are going to try this year, both from Burpee, are:

Ashley - Supposedly heat tolerant red loosehead with ruffled leaves.
Freckles - Another (supposedly) heat tolerant lettuce, this is a Romaine type sporting bright green leaves with red freckles.

Others we may try:

Little Gem - Baby green romaine type good for containers. We had good luck with mid-spring sowing of this one.
Thai Oakleaf - Bred to take the heat, this cultivar is available from Southern Exposure.
Tom Thumb - Makes a perfect little butterhead the size of a tennis ball. Too cute to pass up and ideal in containers. Early spring cropping is most successful.

Easy to grow and decorative, lettuce ranks highly for backyard gardens large or small.

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