Salad leaves

DSC_4364This is such a broad subject around which everyone has their favourites. So the best thing to do is to explain what kind of salad I like to eat and how I plan my cropping.

With that as the base there other additions that I like to help fill up my salad bowl: salad rocket, mizuna, dill and summer purslane. I also have a tendency to add things from the hedgerows depending on the time of year – maybe a leaf of wild garlic or some sorrel. Then there are the flowers such as nasturtiums, which I eat whole, and the petals of the pot marigold which get strewn over the whole bowl.

For smaller growing spaces the cut and come again salad mixes are very good because you get a quick return and several harvests. This is also true for the Japanese leaves like mizuna, and also rocket, both of which are quick growing and function best as cut and come again types. These last two I sow at three weekly intervals, sprinkling some seeds on the surface of a pot and lightly covering with soil or compost. Being brassicas both are willing germinators and make you feel like things are happening. Lettuce meanwhile is a wee bit slower both to germinate and grow.

Preparing the soil, planting out and sowing seed.

Garden soil that has been raked to a fine tilth with a crumb structure of penny piece size is fine to plant lettuce into. For sowing it needs to be much finer, more like porridge oats.

In the early part of the season, up until the beginning of May I sow lettuce indoors. Use a 9cm pot and ordinary compost. Sprinkle a little seed, twenty or thirty roughly, on the surface and cover lightly with more fine compost, just until the seeds are covered. Water using a watering can with a fine rose on the end and water every other day until germination happens.

Pricking out

When the seedlings are big enough for you to hold on to one of the first sets of juvenile leaves (cotyledons), prick them out into module trays, seed trays, egg boxes or whatever comes to hand at the spacing of nine seedlings per egg box, ie 2-3cm apart. Keep well watered and in the warm (but outside in the hot weather, out of direct sunlight) before hardening off and planting out two weeks later. Hardening off means leaving outside day and night for two days for acclimatization purposes.

Sowing outdoors in seedbeds

This saves time, compost and water and you should do it from May through the rest of the season if you have the space. Transplanted lettuce seedlings will look very sad and droopy for the first few days but as long as you water them every day until they have taken a hold they will soon pick up. Make sure you transplant last thing of the day in the cool of the evening so they have the first night to settle in. Doing it first thing in the morning and then being faced with a hot day would be a disaster.

Take out a little seed drill 30cm long with the tip of your trowel. No deeper than 2cm. Water the drill and once the excess has drained through sprinkle the seed in the drill. Close the drill. Firm lightly and water on the top. Label the row so you you know what and where it is. The seedlings will be up in 6 days and ready for transplanting in two weeks,

Planting out

All heading lettuce, whether butterhead, cos, romaine, oak leaf etc, can be planted at 25cm squared spacings. One thing to be sure of when transplanting is not to bury the growing tip. With some plants like parsley and many brassicas this does not matter so much and they will grow through the soil. But with lettuce and strawberries it is not good. It will likely kill the seedling. So even if the plant stays a little proud and floppy, don’t worry, it will quickly recover its composure and grow into a fine lettuce. Always water immediately after planting.

DSC_4489Crop maintenance

You may need to water again the next day id the weather is warm and sunny, but don’t worry about the unhappy looking state of the plant as it acclimatizes to its new surroundings. Lettuce are incredibly resilient and as awful as they look after planting, they do recover.

Harvesting

This is entirely up to you. You can harvest a lettuce whenever you like. All different types are fully ready at different times. Some you can cut one leaf at a time off, particularly the oak leaf types, while the butterhead will form a big ball of overlapping leaves. But you can also harvest these when they are young and not too full. It entirely depends on how much lettuce you want! In a wet year the longer you leave lettuce in the more the slugs will come and trouble the plants. This is why the cut and come again types where you harvest single or bunched leaves at a time have become popular.

Crop removal

When the lettuce is harvested you have more choices. Cut the head off and leave the root in or pull the whole plant and put the stalk and the root on the compost heap. Cut and come again types are finished when there are no more decent sized leaves being produced. Then you pull them up and compost them. If you leave the roots of large lettuce in the groun they will throw up leaves from th stump and you can get a second harvest. I do this towards the end of the season when supplies are running out.

Pests and diseases

Slugs are the worst problem, especially in a wet year and you have to go out an hour after dark and pick them off. You can use a nematode as a biologiczl control but it is prohibitively expensive on a garden scale.

Aphids can also trouble the roots and the leaves, especially in early summer. Not much you can do about this apart from rotating the ground and growing them somewhere else. Even though lettuce may not appear to be taking much from the ground the consistent cropping of a garden leaves a legacy – the only reason for problems like root aphid creeping in is if your soil has been depleted.

TOP TIP

Heading lettuce is not great in the high summer. Lettuces do not like the scorching summer sun so best to grow heading lettuce in the spring and autumn outside and the cut and come again types in the summer.

Seed saving

It is more than possible to save seed from lettuce. You let the plant ‘bolt. i.e. run to flower. A tall flower spike will appear from the middle of the plant. The flowers are small and often yellow. These will quickly turn to seed. On a dry day harvest the whole plant and hang it upside down somewhere dry and warm like the greenhouse or sun room. The drying and ripening process needs to happen quickly. Put sheets of newspaper underneath the hanging plant. When the seeds come away easily, they are dry. Leave them on the newspaper for a few more days and then gather them up into an envelope where they should stay for the winter. In a cool but dry room. No dampness anywhere.

Varieties

  • Marvel of Four Seasons (butterhead)
  • Cocarde (oakleaf)
  • Cut and Come again
  • Suzanne (butterhead)
  • Valmaine (cos type)
  • Little Gem (mini cos)

 

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