This month our plant of the month is lettuce and salad leaves since we have lots of tasty leaves coming up in the biodynamic plot (see featured image), the no-dig organic plot and in the traditional garden which JimJim looks after.
We sowed a mixed salad pack of seeds with a couple of different lettuce varieties, beets, chard and kale in it to harvest the young leaves in salads.
Lettuce, endive, chicory and the even Jerusalem artichokes we are growing are all part of the same family of plants called Asteracea which also includes the biodynamic gardener’s friend (or the pristine lawn’s most hated weed) dandelions. Plants in this family are usually treated as annuals in the vegetable plot and the salad-type plants have mostly have a milky white sap when the leaf stems are broken. There are more plants in this family which exhibit very different properties such as the artichokes (Jerusalem, Chinese and globe), sunflowers and the thistle!
Lettuce and salad leaves are most economically grown as a catch-crop or as an intercrop between rows or along with slower growing plants. They prefer a rich and fertile soil which has been manured and dug over the previous autumn (fall) but can grow well in window boxes, containers and even indoors.
Lettuce comes in winter, spring and summer varieties to cultivate as well as cabbage lettuce, cos lettuce and butterhead lettuce to describe their structure. Butterheads have a flattened soft leaf head, cos are tall and form a loose, long head whilst the cabbage lettuce form crisp tight hearts with whitish leaves.
Lettuces and similar salad leaves like a cool moist spot in the garden and grow well in partial shade. The salad leaves growing in the biodynamic plot are in partial shade under an apple tree. If they are too exposed to the hot sun they bolt or run to seed very quickly. In winter, they should be protected from harsh frosts with fleece and/or cloches.
Lettuce typically does not grow well in heavy clay which must be fixed by incorporating plenty of manure and compost in the bed in the autumn before sowing.
Lettuce can be sown directly outside according to the seed manufacturer’s instructions or can be sown inside, then transplanted out. The latter is typically used for spring lettuce when they are sown in winter.
Seed only germinates in cool, moist conditions; in hot climates it is often recommended that the seed is placed on wet paper towel and placed in the refrigerator for about five days before sowing. When sowing/thinning seedlings and transplanting it is best to allow 10 inches/25 cm between plants to allow for the heads to fully develop. We haven’t done this because we want small cut and come again type of salad leaves to develop in our plots.
Common problems with lettuce include cut worm, lettuce rot and slugs. To reduce these problems try not to grow lettuce in the same place each year and keep the area free from weeds which can harbor pests.
When harvested, they do not tend to keep very well in the refrigerator so it is best to pick then you need them.