Since lettuce will probably be the first crop you will harvest – and most of us love salads – go for it. We have been eating salads most days from the garden planted a month or so a go.
The lettuce that we see today is actually a weed. Wild lettuce, one of the oldest food plants known to man, was discovered in the Mediterranean basin more than 4,000 years ago.
It was a favorite vegetable in ancient Rome. In fact, the word “lettuce” is derived from the Latin root word “lac,” meaning “milk,” referring to the milky juice found in mature lettuce stems.
Our early colonists included lettuce in the first gardens planted in American soil. Today, lettuce is a favorite vegetable around the world.
Basic varieties of lettuce include:
• Butter head: Loose heads, grassy green leaves, butter texture, mild flavor. Examples are Boston lettuce, which looks like a blooming rose, and Bibb lettuce, which has a cup-shaped appearance. Crisp head Batavians take on the cabbage appearance with their leaves more tightly packed. Known for crispy texture and mild flavor.
• Loose-leaf: This variety doesn’t grow to form heads; its leaves are joined at the stem. Varieties are red leaf, oak leaf and green leaf.
• Romaine or Cos: This lettuce has gained tremendous popularity as the key ingredient in Caesar salads. It has a loaf-like shape with darker outer leaves.
Most varieties of lettuces are easy to grow. Some only like cooler weather and others, like the Batavians, will tolerate heat if well watered. They can be covered with row covers in cold weather and shaded with 15 percent shade cloth in summer.
Plant in soil that is well drained and always add lots of organic matter, in the form of compost, to the soil ahead of time.
Use your best organic fertilizer blends before you plant and again fertilize, not too heavily, with two weeks after planting plants or after the plants are two inches in size.
Cultivate in and around the plant (stay three inches away from plant) gently to not disturb the roots and mulch. This will give the plants an extra dose of long-term food and make for a bountiful harvest.
Be sure to weed your planted gardens. Weeds will compete for nutrients and weaken your plants.
Most lettuce varieties mature in 45 to 55 days. But loose-leaf and mini varieties can be harvested by the outer leaves or baby plants at just about any time.
Sow seeds a quarter-inch deep and cover gently (when seeds germinate, thin to three inches apart) or plant plants every two weeks for succession throughout the season.
Start with early varieties and use heat-tolerant varieties as your main crop. Read seed catalogues for specifics on varieties.
The key to lettuce production is water. During hot weather, lettuce must be watered deeply at least once a week.
Mulch with a layer of clean straw to help the soil retain moisture. A drip-irrigation system is ideal.
Plant lettuce around taller plants like broccoli, brussels sprouts, peppers and eggplants. The lettuce helps its neighbor by keeping the surrounding soil moist and cool and keeping weeds shaded out.
As the taller plants grow, they provide needed shade for the lettuce as the days get warmer. This type of planting is called companion planting.
Lettuce can be harvested any time after true leaves form. Baby lettuce is delightful. For the best quality, it is better to pick early rather than late, as lettuce grown too long may be bitter.
To harvest Batavia and romaine varieties, cut the plant right at the soil line when mature, to harvest full heads.
You can do the same with butter head and loose-leaf lettuce, but I prefer to harvest only the outer leaves as needed. This keeps the plants in production longer.
Harvest in the cool of the day when the leaves are crisp and sweet.
By choosing the right varieties, it’s possible to have lettuce in your garden throughout the growing season. All these lettuces make a great Caesar salad – with the dressing on the side.