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Lettuce

Perhaps one of the easiest foods to grow, once you know their cultivation needs (see the growing section). Here in southern New Mexico the home gardener can have fresh lettuce every month of the year with some knowledge of which varieties to plant and how to germinate them. In the winter I grow them in covered and uncovered beds and under shade in the summer. Commercial lettuce is grown here in two seasonal crops, as shown in my Lettuce Multimedia - best with broadband).

Origins

Lettuce was grown by the Egyptians and Romans and dates back to 6,500 years ago. Romaine is a derivitive from Roman and the name Cos from the Isle of Kos in Greece.
So its been around a long time, traveled the world and is loved by many.

Varieties

There is a huge variety of lettuce types available to home and market gardeners.
All fall into one of four categories.

Looseleaf - the largest group with many herilooms still available. They form a loose open head with leaves that can be picked at any time. Most of the four season lettuces are looseleafs.

Butterheads - often called Boston or Bibb lettuce form a loose head of buttery smooth leaves.

Crispheads - form tight heads of light green leaves (except for the little known Red Iceberg variety) The common Iceberg lettuce found in supermarkets is a crisphead variety.

Romaine or Cos - form large loose heads of upright leaves. The leaf texture is firmer than other lettuces and makes great "wraps" and baked lettuce dishes as well as Caesar salads. There are some delightful red romaines that look great in the garden and taste great in
the salad.

lettuce photograph

How many varieties are there? Well, don't know; but Seed Savers Exchange members offer 354 open pollinated and heriloom varieties in the 2004 catalogue. Ought to be enough to get you started with a back yard salad adventure. There is nothing more delicious and nutritious than fresh organic salads from your own garden.

Try it, you'll like it!

Growing

Most lettuce is easy to grow in the kitchen garden, if you stay away from the commercial varieties that have been developed for chemical/mechanical agriculture. Iceberg lettuce in particular is difficult to grow organically, which is no big loss. For many years the head lettuces were preferred while many of the delicious Romains, Cos and loose leaf varieties went ignored by the major seed companies - but fortunately not by seed collectors and gardeners.

Lettuce is a cool season crop that is sensitive to hot temperatures and long days - which make most varieties bolt prematurely and get bitter. The seeds need light and temperatures under 80 degrees to germinate - they also need to be dormant for a while before they will sprout. Seventy-five degrees is an optimum germination temperature. During hot months I germinate it indoors in front of an air conditioner to keep soil temperatures below 80 degrees and get rapid germination. Keep the seeds exposed to light and evenly moist. To break their dormancy period, refrigerate the seeds for 5 days before planting them.


During the times of year when afternoon soil temperatures remain under 80 degrees I will broadcast a mixture of lettuces along with other greens, radishes and carrots. I have planted them in broccoli beds, in the shade of peas as companions and tried sowing them in rows between leeks. If you harvest them as young greens they can fill many spaces in between more slowly growing plants. I always let some plants go to seed so that I have a seed supply and lettuce growing as weeds in the garden.

Young lettuce plants will take a hard freeze without damage, and the mature plants of some cold hardy varieties will take freezing also. I cover my mature lettuce beds on winter nights that dip below 32 degrees.

Recipes

Bronze Arrowhead photograph

 

Bronze Arrowhead Lettuce

Bronze Arrowhead is an heirloom variety that many (including me) consider the best all round lettuce for the kitchen garden. It was introduced as Bronze Beauty by the Germania Seed & Plant Company and awarded the bronze metal at the 1947 All American Selections.

It is easy to grow, richly flavored, long standing and beautiful both in the garden and the salad bowl. In southern New Mexico you can grow it year round, with a little shade and afternoon watering in the summer.

Jericho lettuce photograph

 

Jericho Lettuce

Jericho lettuce is an open pollinated Romaine/Cos variety developed in Israel to be bolt resistant in hot weather. This is the only romaine type I know
of that remains sweet after it has started to bolt.
It finally set flower in mid August, long after the other four season lettuces.

seed lettuce photograph

In November my mature Jericho lettuce was frozen, with some damage to the older leaves, but still edible. As the older heads get tougher and stronger in flavor, I bake them with shrimp and bacon for a rare and divine meal (see the recipe section for hints)

for a Slide Show about Lettuce Click here


 

parsley and greens photograph

A bed of salad greens sown amongst the parsley. The greens will be eaten before competing with
the perennial parsley.

broccoli and greens photograph

By the time the broccoli needs the root space
these greens will be salad!

 

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