It is early February with weeks to go before the first seed is sown, yet I have a craving for fresh greens. I need lettuce! A handful of seedlings thinned from a row, their pinched-off roots tossed into the weed bucket, the baby leaves — red, green and speckled — rinsed with ice cold water from the hose and devoured with early sugar peas.
This is something more than a yearning for spring. Michael Pollan, in his most recent book, “In Defense of Food — an Eater’s Manifesto,” says it is the vitamin C that I am craving from lettuce leaves. According to Pollan, humans long ago lost the ability to make this essential antioxidant and became dependent on a plant-rich diet that provides it and other essential nutrients.
Lettuce is a mainstay of the spring food garden, nutritionally essential and easy to grow from last frost until summer’s heat causes stems to bolt and leaves to turn bitter. Some gardeners are also successful with a fall crop, if they can keep the slugs away.
Growing lettuce in the garden
Sow lettuce seeds in the garden in early spring, as soon as the soil can be worked, covering them lightly with soil. They can be sown in shallow rows or, my preference, broadcast over the surface of a small bed and lightly raked into the soil. For an extended harvest, make small sowings every two weeks throughout the spring.
Keep the soil moist until the seeds germinate, usually within one to two weeks. Scattering a light mulch of dry straw over the soil will help hold moisture in the soil during and after germination. Do not pile on the straw, however, or the seeds may not find the light.
The first lettuce harvest comes early as you thin the crowded seedlings — the young thinnings are delicious! To avoid damaging other seedlings, cut the excess seedlings at the soil surface with your fingernails or snip them off with scissors.
Early-bird shoppers at local garden centers may find a variety of lettuce transplants ready for planting in the garden. While the number of varieties is limited, transplants quickly produce an early harvest of large leaves.
Lettuce grows best in a fertile, well-drained soil in full sun or light shade. We had a bumper crop last spring after digging composted goat manure into the soil to improve drainage and add nutrients. No additional fertilizer was necessary.
Slugs are a major nuisance in Marjorie’s garden, particularly on lettuce and strawberries. We rely on a combination of row covers and diatomaceous earth to minimize damage.
We apply the diatomaceous earth, fossilized remains of hard-shelled algae, on the surface of the soil in a ring around each plant, not on the plants themselves. The powder is abrasive and soft-bodied slugs will not slither across it. It must be applied after every rain or irrigation.
Fabric row covers supported over the lettuce plants with wire hoops will deter slugs if the fabric is tightly sealed around the edges. Lightweight and transmitting up to 90 percent sunlight, the covers can remain over the plants all season. Rain and overhead irrigation will reach the plants and soil.
Varieties of lettuce
Part of the fun in growing lettuce is experimenting with different varieties. Among the leafy or nonheading lettuces, the type most often grown for “greens,” the choices in leaf shape and leaf color seem endless. And there is no shortage of choices for heading varieties as well.
Spend your snow days browsing seed catalogs. If the choices seem overwhelming, consider buying seeds of a mixture of varieties that differ in leaf color and shape. Even when I purchase individual varieties, I end up combining the remaining seeds into a mix for my last sowing. Often this produces the richest tapestry of color in Marjorie’s garden.
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