Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Lettuce Be Thankful

Leafy greens, especially fast growing ones like lettuce, must be some of the easiest vegies to grow. Some half-decent soil, lots of water and a bit of sun and they grow faster than the snails can eat them. Almost. Probably the first thing you need to realise about growing lettuce is that you shouldn't expect to produce a perfect supermarket-sized Iceberg on your first attempt. The second thing to realise is that you actually don't want to. There are far more tasty, nutritious, attractive and productive varieties available especially for the home gardener. Some have been around for centuries, and with good reason. Here are a few varieties currently growing in the Front Yard Farm:

Australian Yellow Leaf
This is the first time I've grown Australian Yellow Leaf. It appears to be fast growing, heat tolerant and so green it's practically fluorescent. I haven't actually tasted it yet but it's going in tomorrow's salad so I'll let you know.

Royal Oakleaf
Royal Oakleaf is a great lettuce for sandwiches and contrasts nicely with the more solid-leafed varieties. It's something of an old fashioned variety, having been first listed in 1771.

Lollo Rosso
The frilly Lollo Rosso looks as good in the garden as it does in mixed leaf salads. Mine never seem to grow as fast as the green leafed varieties but I'm still going to keep growing it.

So what do you do with all these fancy lettuces? You make an edible ornamental border of course.

Lettuce Collection
So far these are all loose-leaf lettuces. The advantages of these are that they're slower to bolt to seed and you can harvest them as needed rather than the all-or-nothing production of headed lettuces. This year I also planted some Green Mignonette lettuce, which are almost a heading variety, with the leaves quite closely bunched. It's really a bit hot here in Summer for these guys and they ran to seed before getting very large. They do well over Winter in full sun, and last Summer did fairly well in partial shade. Unlike some other varieties they don't go bitter when they bolt, so all is not lost if you let them turn into skyscrapers.

Green Mignonette
Some tricks for successful lettuce production are:

- Prepare a well drained soil with plenty of manure and/or compost. Mulch to retain moisture.
- Water lots. All the time. Every day or even twice a day when it's really hot.
- Water with seaweed extract and/or fish emulsion every week or two. On a quiet night you can hear them growing.
- If they bolt to seed or just die then don't despair, try another variety.
- Keep them coming. You need to start raising seedlings soon after you've planted out the last ones to keep a constant supply going. Stagger your planting to avoid gluts. If you want. Sometimes gluts are fun.
- Grow lots. If you have too many, give them away to friends. Everyone likes fresh organic lettuce. Just warn them that you don't use pesticides and if they're very lucky they may find a little bonus slug inside.

There, you no longer have any excuse to not grow lettuce. Get a pot, a polystyrene box or a spare spot in the garden and off you go. Now!

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