Lettuce begin. Please excuse the pun. I had to use it, because if you are a novice gardener, lettuce is one of the best plants to try. Start too ambitiously and you are more likely to have failures and become discouraged. I began gardening several years ago, after years shopping at farmer’s markets. I was addicted to fresh, local produce, I wanted to be eating healthier, and had a huge desire to grow some of my own food. I wasn’t confident enough yet to try growing tomatoes or asparagus, so I chose an easier project. One of the first seeds I tried was lettuce. I was new and wanted something easy with good results. Also, my daughter had just moved into a new place, and finally had a little balcony that did not have the inhabitants of a hornet’s nest waiting to attack her every time she opened the door.
I wanted to give her a project that got her away from her work desk. I had been reading seed catalogues and found a lettuce called City Garden Blend, a mix of baby lettuces. Since she was in the middle of a city with no yard, it seemed suitable, so I sent it to her. I bought myself a couple of pots, some garden soil and fertilizer, and planted a few lettuce seeds of my own. I was amazed at the results. They came up quickly, and tasted wonderful and sweet, so much better than anything store-bought. I was hooked, and so was my vegetarian daughter!
That is the thing about gardening. Once you start, once you see and taste the results, you are buoyed by your success and driven to try something else. Nothing can compare with going out to the backyard and picking your salad fresh for lunch. Watching those teeny seeds poke through the ground is so rewarding.
So, I expanded my lettuce crop to include other greens such as chard and spinach, trying new kinds each year. It is the first thing I plant outside in the spring. Lettuce does not like hot weather. Last year’s very hot summer was disastrous for leafy greens. Heat makes the plants bolt, which means they think it is time to go to seed, sending up a flower stalk that grows tall and not very leafy in an attempt to produce flowers. I do not recommend eating bolted greens, which can be bitter. Greens germinate and grow better in cool weather, between 7-20 C. It can help to grow them in a sunny morning spot with a shaded afternoon, or to grow them beside other, taller plants that shade them during the hottest part of the day. You can also look for “slow to bolt” on seed packets. Head lettuces like romaine are slowest to bolt, loose-leaf lettuces are the quickest. Since lettuce is mostly water, frequent watering can help cool the plants down as well.
Loose-leaf lettuces grow individual leaves rather than a head, which you can “cut and come again”, meaning once they are several inches high you can snip them down to about an inch and they will re-grow. They make great baby lettuce salads. Harvest in the morning so the plant has time to recover. As head lettuces like romaine grow, the outside leaves can be snipped for use while the plant continues to grow. Sow new rows every two weeks to ensure you have continuous, edible lettuce.
When sowing the seeds, loosen and even out the dirt in the bed, sow seeds generously in a line 1/8””-1/4” deep and rows 8”-10” apart, then barely cover with soil and pat down lightly. Planting too deep makes it more difficult for them to come up. As the plants grow, you can thin smaller plants for your first salads, or replant the tiny seedlings elsewhere. If you are growing head lettuces, allow room between each one. If planting in a pot, look for drainage holes. If there are none, place a layer of gravel in the bottom before adding soil. All plants need good drainage.
Be sure to pick off limp or damaged leaves, especially if they are laying on the dirt, to prevent soil-borne disease. Watch for bugs and holes in the leaves. As my garden expanded, I graduated to raised beds and most of them have covers, which can protect your garden from pests and cold. There are also row covers and other methods to keep critters out.
If the outside temperature starts to climb and you are afraid of losing your beautiful crop to bolting, cut it all and store in zipper bags with a damp paper towel, squeezing air out. Wash it as you need it. During the hottest weather, don’t replant. I wait till the weather cools to plant a few more rows – some lettuces can survive a light frost. It is worth trying if you love your salads as much as we do. I also sometimes cover the entire planter during a hot spell to shade the plants. I grow lettuces in winter months inside using my Aerogarden, which has lengthened the growing season as well.
My biggest piece of advice is: try it. Buy a few seeds, a bag of dirt and a pot. Your garden success can encourage others to give it a try. My garden accomplishments inspired my sons to pursue their own versions of growing. These days many more people are trying their hand at gardening, making it more difficult to find seeds. But a greener world is a good thing. It has forced me to source and support smaller, family-run seed companies, introducing me to new seed choices. Gardening is a great tactile family activity that teaches children where their food comes from and fosters a love of vegetables. It distracts you from your troubles, and gets you away from your phone. It is so therapeutic – being outside in the sun and fresh air, listening to chirping birds, hands in the dirt, concentrating on those tiny seeds. Watching them grow into edible plants is not only exciting, but so rewarding and beneficial to your overall health. Sure, not everything is quick or easy, but the end result is always worth it.
Story and photos by Susan Turnbull