Lettuce (Lactuca sativa).

Again, no photos. Soon.

In the post Spinach, I mentioned that the planting chart for spinach in Johnny’s catalog made me tired just looking at it. Johnny’s Selected Seeds planting program for lettuce has my head spinning. Again, the program is more for marketers, the folks who put together those wonderful salad mixes and wash them 3 times. As a home gardener with limited space and limited need for lettuce and other greens, I have to find my own way with lettuce.

I found an inspirational guide in Charles Dowding’s Salad Leaves for All Seasons. Dowding is British, so right there his book is fun to read for his British way of looking at and writing about lettuce. He has big problems with slugs, I, knock wood, do not. He does more with indoor planting and container gardening than I do. But his lettuce philosophy is, as I said before, inspirational, and his book well worth studying.

Last year, thanks to Dowding’s easily caught enthusiasm for lettuce, I managed to plant way too much in the spring. Even after eating lots and giving some away, I sent much of the lettuce to the compost pile. As an aside, it’s hard to give away lettuce, as opposed to tomatoes, etc. Lettuce is perishable. Cleaning it is labor intensive, and I can’t see giving it away without cleaning it thoroughly. What if a picky friend finds a bug in my lettuce. Worst thought. So, with all that said, it’s best to plant the right amount of lettuce through an extended season to have just enough to eat with a little to give away.

One of Dowding’s best insights on lettuce, for me, is planting heart lettuce, as he calls it, or head lettuce, and using it as cut-and-come-again. This works so well that I have only one leaf variety seed this year, the rest being varieties of head lettuce. Because of my last year’s excitement about lettuce, I have leftover pelleted seeds. Pelleted seeds are supposed to be used in the season they are bought. I’m taking a chance and planting them a second season. If they don’t come up, I will reorder for a second seeding, only losing a little growing time, hopefully.

Plant lettuce as soon as the ground can be worked. Today is March 14 and the vegetable garden is still snow-covered. But it’s raining today, with temps in the 40s, so perhaps by the last of March . . . . Miracles are part of gardening. Have faith.

Johnny’s catalog says optimum germination occurs in soil temps of 60° to 68° F, although germination will occur in soil temps as low as 40° F. Lettuce will germinate poorly in soil temps above 75° F. OK. A thermometer for checking soil temps is a good investment. I have one from Johnny’s that looks just like an old-fashioned oven thermometer–not digital, in other words.

Although seeding indoors is an option, I don’t do that. I direct seed in raised beds. Lettuce can be seeded 1″ apart and thinned, for head lettuce, 8 to 12″ apart. Sometimes it works to transplant the thinned plants into another bed. Johnny’s says to cover the seed lightly, which I do. But the little plants sometimes need to be situated deeper in the soil. Transplanting them allows for this. The plants remaining after thinning can be gently pushed deeper into a light, fertile soil using fingers on each side, little push, then gently mounding soil up around them. This may sound like too much work, but using head lettuce for cut-and-come-again means keeping one plant growing over several weeks before it goes to seed, making it more worth the extra effort. The other good aspect of this plan is always having the option of harvesting the whole head–if you are in a hurry, or if the heads are getting too close together in maturity. Dowding rules in my lettuce patch.

In all aspects of harvesting, my goal is to leave all soil in the garden and all trimmings in the compost pile. By the time lettuce makes it to the kitchen, it’s usually been washed and picked over at least once, with any yellow or undesirable leaves left behind. Think of it, would you rather sit in a sunny garden or at a shady picnic table listening to birds, or would you rather be hunched over a counter or sink in the kitchen. Easy choice for me.

Lettuce planting ceases during the hot months and starts again in late summer. Bed covers can extend the lettuce season well into the fall months. In The Winter Harvest Handbook, Eliot Coleman would say all winter, even in Maine, but I haven’t gotten that far yet. One hot summer I started lettuce in the shade of a cucumber vine growing on a trellis. I had many little lettuce plants to transplant into other beds as the beds became available and the weather cooled. Will try that again for sure.

So, here’s my extensive lettuce seed lineup. All are pelleted. I have to expect failures in germination. At least I will find out for myself the viability of pelleted seeds.

7 lettuce seed varieties. Too many. 6 head lettuce and one leaf. Pelleted. One romaine. 2 butterhead. 2 bibb. 2 crisp iceberg. Although the days to maturity are noted below, they don’t apply using Dowding’s method since cut-and-come-again harvesting can begin with baby leaves as long as the heart is not damaged.

Coastal Star. Green romaine. Pelleted organic seeds. Johnny’s catalog says heat tolerant. Good sweet flavor. 57 days from direct seeding to maturity.

Sylvesta. Green butterhead. Pelleted organic seeds. Johnny’s catalog says big, green Boston-type with exceptional disease resistance. Good for fall planting. 52 days from direct seeding to maturity.

Nancy. Green butterhead. Pelleted organic seeds. Johnny’s catalog says traditional Boston type for spring and fall. Leaves usually thick and crisp. Heart has excellent butterhead quality. 52 days from direct seeding to maturity. In future, I should decide between the 2 butterheads and reorder only one.

Bambi. Green bibb. Pelleted organic seeds. Johnny’s catalog says little Gem-type for mini heads. Sets new standard for lettuce flavor and texture. Early, mid, and late plantings. Sounds too good to be true. 50 days from direct seeding to maturity.

Winter density. Green bibb. Pelleted seeds. Johnny’s catalog says unique, specialty bibbs-romaine type for mini heads. Compact, extra-dark green leaves. Best described as tall buttercrunch. Excellent flavor and texture. Suitable for all seasons. 54 days from direct seeding to maturity.

Crispino. Green iceburg. Pelleted organic seeds. Johnny’s catalog says glossy green, firm heads. Less susceptible to twisted leaves than other icebergs. White interior, juicy, mild. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I can’t distinguish many of these varieties, even though I planted them all last year. I do remember Crispino from last year, however. Perhaps it’s nostalgia for iceberg lettuce, which used to the only lettuce you could buy at the store, which I never buy today. Crispino is like the old iceberg, except it’s better.

Concept. Green summer crisp lettuce. Pelleted organic seeds. Oops, it’s baby leaf, not head lettuce. Johnny’s catalog says leaves are arranged in a whorl, giving the plant a unique vase-like shape. Strange. Sounds like a head, doesn’t it. Leaves thick, juicy, and flavorful.

My lettuce goals for this summer are to find out if pelleted seeds can be used a second year, to test if Dowding’s harvesting methods are as good as I remember from last summer, and to distinguish the different varieties of lettuce so I will know for sure what I want to reorder for next year–or try something new, of course.

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