Lettuce be light
“Once again this week, I give the reins to my Organic Centre colleague, Christiane Share, who draws on her wealth of experience on growing lettuce – delicious, quick and fresh – to give you a treasure trove of tips.” – Hans
Every year, I know things are looking up when the first bowl of home-grown salad leaves arrives on the dinner table. While our summer days can be neither here nor there, lettuce is a sure thing. Ideally suited to our temperate climate, lettuce is a simple and reliable crop to grow, either outdoors or in a polytunnel. And it is also perfectly suited the lighter summer salads we crave this time of year.
Lettuce is very low in calories and high in vitamins and minerals. To retain as many of these as possible don’t tear up your lettuce leaves, eat them whole.
Lettuce also lifts your mood – it contains a compound called Lactucarium, which induces a mild sensation of salad-relate euphoria!
There are two main types of lettuce. Hearting varieties are cut and used as whole heads. Loose-leaf or ‘cut-and-come-again’ varieties are harvested continuously, a few leaves at a time, as required.
Many people prefer the speed and convenience of cut and come again varieties. These can provide you with lettuce throughout the summer and into autumn. The of the loose-leaf varieties, Butterhead, with its soft, tender leaves is popular, but it is best sown in early spring. There are also the oak leaved Red Salad Bowl and the green, curly Lollo Biondi. Go for a variety of colours and textures in your salads. Plan to grow these next year.
For now, consider crisp-head, hearting lettuces, such as Great Lakes or Batavia types, which are less likely to bolt in warm weather. Batavia lettuces have thicker leaves; Roger is a faster growing variety with a brilliant red-green colour.
Cos lettuce, also called Romaine, is another option. The leaves of Cos are long, narrow and upright. I like mini Cos, such as Little Gem.
Decide which type would suit your culinary needs and start sowing!
How to sow
Sow seeds into module trays filled with seed compost. Water the tray of compost well before sowing the seeds about half a centimetre deep. Place the tray somewhere cool, around 18°C is ideal. Lettuce seed won’t germinate in temperatures above 24°C, so on this occasion a sunny windowsill may not be the best place for your seed tray. Keep the tray moist and while your seedlings are growing prepare the area where you will plant them out.
Lettuce prefers a light, well-drained, fertile soil. Remove any weeds and if you have some well broken-down manure or compost, dig it into the bed; this will help to retain moisture. You can grow a couple of lettuces in a grow bag if you don’t have garden space. A semi-sunny spot is fine.
When seedlings are around 3cm tall plant them out. Larger varieties such as the loose leaved Salad Bowl will require 35cm spacing between each plant, these types spread out a lot as they grow. For smaller or more upright varieties plant 25cm apart – or follow the directions on your seed packet.
Harvest heads of lettuce about eight weeks after sowing. Either pull them up completely or cut through the base of the stem with a knife, leaving the root in the ground, where a smaller lettuce will re -sprout. Successive plantings, every 2 to 3 weeks, are a good idea if you are growing heads of lettuce.
Remember to water regularly – lettuce needs plenty of moisture. If growing in a polytunnel keep the soil continuously moist.
Also, slugs like lettuce. A lot. Watch out for them.
Hans Wieland is joint manager of The Organic Centre, Rossinver, Co Leitrim. For more information, visit www.theorganiccentre.ie or phone 071 9854338.
Questions or comments? Contact Hans at email@example.com.