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The Kitchen Garden: Lettuce

There is something to be said for fresh picked lettuce. When we buy it at the supermarket, grocers or even at a market we really have no idea when it was picked. Unless of course there are specific details on the journey of the produce such as origin, growing method and time from harvest to sale at that time.

If a lettuce looks fresh this does not equate to fresh picked. One also needs to be aware that the mixed packet leaf can be even older. Packaging techniques can be used to keep produce fresher for longer and that is not just concerning lettuce.

So coming back to  growing fresh lettuce may people say ` don’t the slugs demolish your lettuce`, how do you protect them from slug damage, which slug protection do you use ? And so it may go on.

I find lettuce of most types easy to grow. Little attention to my soil is required although I generally have some organic matter added each year; however this may not be everywhere. This detail may just be down to time, available organic matter, energy etc.  I have very light soil which does dry out very quickly. I aim to be respectful of water usage preferring to support the plants early in life when first planted out if planted from young baby plants. When I grow from seed they will be given less attention. Depending upon the climatic conditions will ultimately affect watering through their growing time before harvesting.

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Mixed Lettuce leaf ready for picking

I have discovered as long the growing bed is not compacted I do very well with lettuce as a crop. The biggest challenge is not slugs but growing successional harvests so you do not have all of the lettuce ready at one time which then all start to bolt. With a hungry lettuce gap after.

Thinking ahead and experimentation is key. Experimenting with sowing a smaller quantity in your allocated lettuce area. Choosing a number of different types of lettuce. This can be for a number of reasons.

That Is:

To add variety to your diet, lettuce does vary in mineral and vitamin content. 
To add diversity in what you grow, lettuce is not all the same.
To give differing texture, colour & shape. There are lettuces that appear to be masterpieces of design.
Frilly, serrated, smooth, textured, wavy, open and close nit. Red, ruby, pink, blushing, deep maroon, maroon blue, green, dark green, mid green, pale and soft green. Or a mixture.
A bed of mixed lettuce leaf is highly diverse and attractive.  
Size, size of leaf size and of the overall lettuce. This can be affected by the soil and growing conditions.
Taste, yes they do taste differently or certainly can.

This brings us the type of lettuce which is split into two types:

Hearting lettuces have a dense centre, hearting lettuce.
Loose-leaf lettuces have open leaves with no heart.
One can also grow a selection of lettuce suitable for cut & come again. These can be picked when young or allowed to gain more maturity. The beauty with growing cut and come again is that you can pick a varied selection of leaf for any meal or salad.
Growing a selection of the above in succession will give the best, most diverse and longest harvesting season. Depending upon climatic conditions.

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Mixed lettuce ready to harvest & harvested.

There are several types of hearting:

Crisp head leaf types which create large hearts of curled and crisp leaves. These are generally more resistant to bolting (going to seed prematurely) this group includes iceberg lettuces. Great for shredding into salads.
Cos types which have an upright growth habit and oblong head which can be quite long.
Butterhead lettuce which have an open habit, are quick-maturing and tolerate poorer growing conditions.

Overall there is now a huge selection of all types of lettuce which gives every gardener the opportunity to experiment and see what works best on your soil type.
Lettuce is happiest in sun with a water retentive soil. However I successfully y grow in sun/shade and find on my light soil this can be very useful during hot spells. Keeping the lettuces a little cooler and slowing down bolting.

Grow lettuce in open ground, grow bags, planters and containers.

Sow in rows, a square section of an allocated lettuce bed and in any space which you have left in the vegetable garden. Such as a little empty pocket here and there. The later can be very useful as even if you sow the same lettuce in his way I can vary climatic conditions giving you differing harvest or picking times.

Time of sowing: This will depend upon when you plan to harvest … ideally. Your individual climate and climatic conditions of the season as the latter can change dramatically from year to year. The type of lettuce also as there are cool season lettuce which will withstand the winter months.

Spend time researching and reading upon the different lettuce available and suitable for your location.

Sowing: General guidelines for the UK

Sow lettuce seed every 2 weeks to provide continuity.
Sow seed thinly 13mm (1/2in) deep in rows 30cm (12in) apart.
Or broadcast for young salad pickings. One can always pick a mini plant to thin out later then allow the ones left to become more mature.

Spring cropping:
Sow a cultivar such as 'Winter Density' in September/October either in a cold greenhouse or outside under cloches in mild areas. I have also sow out-doors and protected the crop by fleece over fine mesh tunnels.

Summer and autumn cropping:
Sow outdoors from late March to late July depending upon late frosts and ground conditions. For an even earlier crop, sow indoors in early February in seed trays and plant out in early March under cloches or plastic tunnels.
Options here may depend upon greenhouse, poly-tunnel availability.

Early winter cropping:
Sow outdoors in early August and cover the plants with closed cloches in late September.

Do note that summer high temperatures can stop certain seed from germinating. In this case it can be useful to sow in the shade of taller growing crops, between sweet corn or in those little pockets of bare soil. Additional watering to lightly cool and moisten the seedbed is also helpful at these times. Creating some shade with material or fine mesh can also provide shade. Be inventive it is amazing how one can rig shading up out of bean poles and shade fabric or horticultural fleece.

I will leave slugs until another time … this could be an article in itself !

Enjoy your lettuce sowing,

Laara.CSB Laara Copley-Smith is a professional Garden Designer based in the UK with a passion for Kitchen Gardens and growing organically. Laara has been a vegan for over ten years, is a raw foodist and is a keen photographer. Laara offers an extensive range of bespoke design services and creative consultancy and can be contacted here.

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