It is very convenient to drop by the grocery these days and pick up a head of California – New Mexico lettuce. Some lettuce is trucked in from Mexico, or other Central American countries. Modern transportation systems are great, yet from the commercial grower’s standpoint they must raise the variety that is the toughest to hold up to shipping, storage, machine harvesting and still have rapid growth. Iceberg lettuce, the cabbage type lettuce, is the most popular with commercial growers. Although the most economically important to the industry, Iceberg lettuce has the least vitamin content for the home consumer.
Keep in mind that the Great Recession is NOT OVER and that California a major winter food grower has lost most of its capacity due to water shortages. Prices are sure to climb this winter on foods. Winter growing is a way to “stock up”.
Other health conscious people are concerned about the pesticide standards in these foreign producing countries where their laws may not be as strict as ours. I note that many Back2theLand gardeners are turning back the clocks to grow their own lettuce, not only in the early spring, but also through the fall and late winter in cold frames and greenhouses.
There are five types of lettuce in the seed catalogs: leaf or non- heading; butterhead with soft leaves encompassing a soft closed head; cabbage types with crisp leaves and a tight closed head; stem lettuce, also known as celtuce, grown for its thick stem; and lastly the cos or romaine lettuce with the tall elongated head. Many different recipes call for different varieties. Try growing several this year starting with direct seeding and by trans- planting. Let’s look at both methods.
Old timers knew that in the early spring with the ground just beginning to thaw a small furrow could be broken in the garden soil, and seed dribbled out and lightly covered with 2″ of soil. If the soil was kept moist you might have lettuce long before your transplants are ready to set out. Loose leaf and butterhead varieties grow the quickest and produce the best quality lettuce for eating. As the plants grow you will want to thin first to six inches apart, replanting the thinnings elsewhere in the garden. Lettuce grows exceptionally well in a companion way with onions, radishes and carrots. Interplanting these lettuce seedlings with these vegetables will surprise you with their increased vigor and improved flavor.
Of course, if you put in a full packet of seed, that would be a hundred foot row of lettuce. You would have too much all at once. It is better to plant short rows, perhaps one every other week. Staggering your plantings makes for better yields, as it interrupts insect cycles, rain storms, freezes and such natural problems of the garden. Do not neglect your thinnings. Thin out plants the first time to six inches apart. When these plants start to touch, thin again to ten to sixteen inches apart, depending upon the variety. I generally “squeeze” my plants a bit with an average of twelve inches apart. Use the second thinnings for early salads even though not fully grown. They are delicious.
Loose leaf and butterhead varieties grow fast (as early as 45 days), and require a rich organic soil with a pH factor slightly acid, but close to neutral. 6.0 to 6.8. If the ground is workable apply a natural fertilizer of five pounds per hundred feet: one part dried blood, one part bone meal, and wood ashes (oak preferred). (Remember to just “dust” the wood ashes, as it is easy to kill the garden with an overdose-go back and read the first articles on garden soil). Two bushels of rotted manure, or compost, per hundred-foot row is good also. Chemical gardeners will have results with two pounds of 5-10-5 per hundred feet.
All of these fertilizers need to be worked into the soil with a tiller, or garden fork. Do not mix chemical fertilizers with natural fertilizers or you will get poor spindly growth and destroy part of the ecological cycle of your garden’s soul.
Cabbage type heading lettuce, like iceberg takes upwards of 80-90 days to mature and is best started earlier in flats in a warm growing part of the greenhouse, window propagation frame, or simply in a shallow pan set on top of the water heater with full sunlight. The new varieties called “mini heading such as Gem from http://www.territorialseed.com/ speed up the time to 45 days. These are spaced at 6” squares.
Lettuce seeds have a quirk of going dormant and being slow to germinate. I like to put my lettuce seeds, especially last year’s seeds, in the refrigerator for a few days before I plant them. This breaks the dormancy period and gets them off to an early start. Lettuce seeds prefer full sunlight to germinate so do not cover them with more than ¼” of soil in the starting/propagation frame. Keep them moist.
Fill a starting frame with your favorite soil mixture, moisten to a dough-like consistency and smooth out slightly below the frame’s edge, perhaps an inch for small flats and 2″ for deep 6” Old Timer flats. Sometimes a small pie plate is fine to just start the seeds by broadcasting them over the soil surface. Once germinated carefully pick them out with a sharp pencil and transplant to a larger flat. Space them at two inches apart in rows two inches apart. Pick out the plants from the pie plate when the first two leaves appear, gently lifting with the pencil at the base and holding the two leaves between your thumb and forefinger.
Keep your growing flats moist and above freezing in your cold frame or greenhouse. Enclosed south facing porches with lots of sunlight are great. Just protect from hard freezing. When you are ready to set into the garden lift the plant as before with a sharp pencil. Here comes the hard part: snip off the outer leaves. I know this sounds odd, but the new transplant will grow faster and bigger if you do this. Leave the inner wrap of leaves to grow out and form the biggest heads you have ever grown. Set into the garden the same way you set out looseleaf and butterhead.
I have fluorescent lamps rigged in the large Solar Green House and that speeds growth as the lamps are set to come “on” only when it gets dark.
GROWHAUS # 2© is completed.
I have covered my Growhaus #2©. The single sheet clear plastic covering is sufficient to protect until January when it usually becomes very cold. At this point I can set a second plastic mini hoop over the lettuce and increase inside protection.
You can also install-before planting- a heavy-duty in-soil electric heating cable-following manufacturers directions. See http://www.charleysgreenhouse.com/ for the heavy duty ones. Not cheap either.
I have found that the heating cables work best if you snake them around with about 6” between the wires. This shortens the growing area, but the heat rising does help considerably. The trick is to capture that heat in the mini hoop covering.
One year I placed in the main garden a row of lettuce and made a very small hoop covering about one foot high and one foot wide. The temperature dropped to –10F at night and froze the soil like a brick. At each night I covered the lettuce row with an old carpet for increased cold protection.
It worked! The lettuce survived but the second problem was very slow growth due to the cold and less light.
These personal experiments moved me to the current Growhaus© design and if all goes well Diane and I, plus the bunnies, will have plenty of lettuce this winter.
Next week we will review the Growhaus#2 © concept with lots of pictures.
COPYRIGHT: 2009, Back2theLand.com, Mark Steel