Sunday, November 28, 2010

Lovely Lettuces!

There is a bit of a standing joke in my house about my salads, perpetuated by my oldest daughter, Emily.

When I make a comment about salad  I've prepared for supper, you know like "have some salad", or "pass the salad"- the retort is always this.  "You mean bowl of lettuce?"

Because I guess that is what my salads are.  No sweet tomatoes or crispy carrot chunks, no colourful peppers or cool cukes.  Bowl o' lettuce.

And if that is what your salads are, the lettuce and greens had better be good.  There is nothing to divert your attention elsewhere.  If your lettuce isn't up to snuff, your salad is a failure.  Limp and browned leaves won't cut it.  Leave that to the chain restaurants.

There are far more lettuce varieties in the grocery stores now than there was even 10 years ago.  But, my friend, tip of the iceberg.  The number of lettuce varieties out there is astounding.  And the best ones aren't in the grocery stores.  The best ones are in your garden.

But first a little lettuce primer.

Most lettuce cultivars, (Latuca sativa), are one of five types of lettuce; leaf, romaine, butterhead, summer crisp and crisphead.  Each type offers the grower different desirable characteristics usually related to texture.  Do you prefer a crispy, soft, frilly or succulent lettuce?  Some are easier to grow than others, while some are sweeter, some have a huge range of colours, some are more heat or cold tolerant and some will hold in the garden longer.  Ahh, so many decisions!  But don't think about it too long- just buy some good seed and get growing!

Lettuces have been around for a long, long time.  They were first mentioned in literature in 440 B.C. and were deemed valuable as both medicine and food.  As medicine they were thought to act as a sedative and help with sleep, while also refreshing the body. It was believed that in fact it was a lettuce tonic that cured Augustus Caesar when he was ailing.

According to Greek mythology, when Adonis died, Venus threw herself on a bed of lettuce to stem her grief and cool her desire.  Sounds quite reasonable doesn't it?  I'll give that a try next spring!

Despite this earlier greatness, advice in the 16th century was that children born of lettuce eaters "do become idle foolish and peevish persons".

Clearly a divergence of opinion as time went on.

Intriguingly enough, lettuce is a member of the sunflower family and a descendant of a weed called prickly lettuce ( Latuca serriola).  Prickly lettuce is a very common weed, found all over my farm and probably many properties across Canada and the US.

There are hundreds of known cultivars of lettuce, some unique to the culture they are grown in.  Hundreds are listed in my 2010 Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook, and reading the descriptions of them can make one a tad hungry for some leafy goodness.

I don't really have a clue how many varieties I grow.  Let's say lots!

But every year there are some that always grace my garden because of their preferred goodness.
Bronze Arrow (aka Bronze Arrowhead) is one.  It is considered a leaf lettuce, and has gorgeous colouring; bronze-purple oakleaf type leaves, and a sturdy crunchy spine.  It holds well in the garden and has a distinctive taste.

Other favourites are Forellenschuss, a gorgeous speckled romaine type, the frilly Black Seeded Simpson and Susan's Red Iceberg.  But I could go on.

A great way to try different types is to buy a mix.  I like the Seed Savers Lettuce Mix.  It can be started in flats and transplanted out early in the season to obtain heads, or sown as a cutting mix which means sowing close together and cutting when several inches tall.

I find lettuce needs a good fertile soil, a smooth and fine seed bed, and lots of water.  It is possible to grow lettuce throughout the year, if watering is paid particular attention to in the summer heat, and the right varieties are chosen for hot or cold conditions. In the winter in Southern Ontario, a cold frame or covering of some sort is essential.
When planting, I generally draw a rectangle around the area I wish to plant my lettuce mix, add a good few inches of compost and scatter the seed evenly over the area.  Because lettuce needs light to germinate, there is no need to cover the seed....just keep it moist.  If your scattering skills are rusty, rows about 6 inches apart work too.

Mesclun mixes are very popular right now, but with many of these mixes, different elements grow at different rates and have different pest problems.  I like to make my own mixes up, but also sow the various elements separately.  All the lettuces go in together, with the funky stuff that grows much quicker like arugula and mustards sown in a separate area.  These two are also very vulnerable to flea beetles, who quickly fill the leaves with holes, sometimes rending them fit for chickens only.  A covering of agricultural fabric can help with this.  When all the various components of the mesclun are 2-3" tall, cut and mix together.

When saving seed, simply let the lettuce remain in the garden.  It will develop a seed stalk and look vaguely reminiscent of -yes-prickly lettuce the weed( also known as sow thistle). It has small yellow flowers, which will dry and look like miniature dandelions with the fluff.  Let the seeds dry on the stalk, and collect.
Lettuce does cross easily between varieties and also with prickly lettuce weed.  If necessary, blossoms can be bagged to prevent cross pollinating.  A makeshift cover of agricultural fabric is ideal for this purpose, tied with string below the seed heads.

A good aged balsamic vinegar and olive oil are my only requirements for good lettuce-enjoy!

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