Some things in life just happen: volunteer squash start themselves from compost, calendula blooms freely without a care, and herbs once planted seed themselves and return to the garden every year. But lettuce is different. With lettuce, you need a plan.
Starting seeds when the weather is cool and days are short poses no challenge. Lettuce likes the early spring and dwindling sunlight of fall. Lettuce leafs out after the first sowing of spring, and for a week or two fresh salads abound. Then the sun grows hotter, the days grow longer, the angle of light rears higher and stabs the ground relentlessly like Norman Bates in the shower. High pitched squeals signal an alarm and all the leafy ladies flee the massacre to makes flowers and seeds. If you harvest their leaves, the latex-like sap in their veins makes them unpalatable. Once it goes to seed, lettuce is lost.
The lettuce plan involves a little trickery. Cool nights certainly help, and I’m not yet sure this year’s lettuce success will translate to a season with higher temps. But we’ve had some torrid days, some humid nights, and the length of days is just as long or short as any other year. I may have found a way to undermine the lettuce’s reproductive imperative just long enough to keep us in salads through August. Here’s some tips:
- Sow in shade.
Use those nooks at the far west and east end of your garden where nothing but weeds emerge to sneak in a little lettuce. The full sun of the garden’s best parts is a death knell to delicate leafy greens. The protection of morning or afternoon shade extends the lifespan of lettuce and helps seeds sprout. Row covers or tucking lettuce underneath big trellised cucumbers or squash works, too.
- Get some pot.
Grow lettuce in pots that can hide behind bigger plants or on a patio, keep out the hungry bunnies, and move when the weather tries to burn your tender green buds into brown mush. A pot or a window box for lettuce solves multiple problems in one fell swoop. Multifaceted solutions are the reason I was born. I’m really excited about growing more lettuce in pots next year.
- Sow thickly.
Why this works, I don’t know. Every other seed needs thinning and space and adequate air: but lettuce, go figure, wants to be crammed in close and fight for its pound of soil. Close quarters helps baby greens re-leaf and seems to encourage multiple harvests of leafy lettuces like oakleaf and mesclun. With one square foot of space sown thickly, I’ve been able to harvest enough lettuce for a week several times from each sowing. Rotating between three mini-plots and a big pot on the patio, this is the first year we haven’t run out of lettuce.
- Sow often.
Lettuces have an ephemeral half-life. Sowing every week or two keeps the tender young things coming and the bitter old dregs composted as all bitter old things must be. As a bitter old thing myself, it pains me to regard old lettuce as a has-been. But she is. She’s no good, no good, baby she’s no good. Sow new seeds under a mesh of screen door material (cheap at the hardware store and oh so bendable) and keep the young sweet greens coming up for sweet, fresh, nubile salads.
- Don’t grow lettuce.
Sweet young things got you down? No time for the incessant demands of successional sowing, frequent harvesting, and clearing out bolted useless garden hags? Grow something else. Grow mustard greens, Swiss chard, New Zealand spinach, and cabbage and kale. Admittedly, brassicas present their own host of deep seated issues, but that will be another post for another day. For now, if lettuce is too demanding a prima donna, then let her go. Grow greens with more robust character to suit your bravado nature. You like tough girls, don’t you? You’re not afraid of a little spice, are you? Grow some greens. Harvest them young. Tart little wenches like mustard greens make an amazing sandwich or wrap.
- Extend the season with herbs.
Parsley and basil taste great in both salads and sammies. If I were more creative (i.e., didn’t have a full-time job) I might experiment with many more herbs. When the lettuce pickings are thin, herbs bulk up the greens. Herbs contain more nutrients and medicinal qualities than plain old lettuce, so the added punch of flavor brings not only pleasure, but also better health. Parsley and basil seem especially easy to grow from seed and last all season long. Their strong aromas make them resistant to pests, so they are carefree growers once your seeds sprout.
Growing greens at home makes me happy because most of the lettuce at the grocery store comes from California on a truck. All the energy wasted transporting it and water wasted irrigating it in an unsuitable climate impels me to grow greens locally. The pleasure of knowing a meal came from less than ten feet away delights me. Michigan has an excellent climate for greens, and almost no supplemental watering is needed here, especially growing in shade with thick mulch.
Sustainability and empowerment are closely related concepts. When I realized today I hadn’t bought any leafy greens at a store or market for almost three months, I just glowed. If I can go at least half the year growing my own greens, how much pollution and waste will I keep out of the world? This year I dropped the ball on successional sowing, so a dearth may soon come. Next year, however, I’m setting a goal of six months of sustainable greens for myself. How about you?