Tips for your Garden in January
as recommended by Mike Vadrine
The many faces of Lettuce
It’s February and the days are gradually getting longer as we move towards Spring. Leafy greens, brassicas (cabbage family), peas and root vegetables comprise the bulk of the harvest from the vegetable garden this month. One leafy green we always grow during the cool season is lettuce.
Lettuce, Lactuca sativa, has been in cultivation for over 3000 years. Early records show Egyptians used lettuce seeds for oil and later began using the plant as a vegetable. In our garden, lettuce is one of the most reliable vegetables and one of the most productive. It grows fast, can be harvested very early with a long growing season and ordinarily has few pest and disease problems. Lettuce can be started indoor sand transplanted to the garden, but I find that it comes up so reliably that I usually just direct seed. I start planting in late fall whenever temperatures finally moderate and put in additional plantings every few weeks for an extended harvest. I will add plantings to the garden as late as early February. Soil temperature should be less than 80 degrees for good seed germination. Seeds should be planted very shallow (1/8 to 1/4 inch) in a prepared seed bed and kept moist. Ideal soil would be well drained, moderate fertility, high in organic matter with a pH near neutral. I must note at this point that some of the prettiest lettuce I’ve ever grown came from stray seed that fell in the compacted garden path with no attention whatsoever – this is not a picky plant.
I usually plant lettuce thickly and then thin to about 2 or 3 inches spacing. The thinned plants are easily transplanted or make a wonderful micro green salad. As plants get larger, I’ll continue to harvest by removing whole plants until I get closer to a 6-inch spacing. Once the plants are well spaced, I harvest by shearing off the tops a couple of inches above the soil. The plants will rapidly re-grow and can be harvested multiple times. Our lettuce harvest continues all winter long and into the early Spring. Lettuce is quite cold tolerant and light frosts and freezes are only likely to damage some leaf edges. If temperatures are going to drop into the 20’s however, I will cover the plants with light freeze cloths or an old sheet. Lettuce does not like warm temperatures and our season will usually come to an end by April when the plants bolt and flower. Once lettuce begins to bolt it becomes quite bitter and generally unpalatable.
In the cool season we have practically no pest or disease issues with lettuce. The earliest fall plantings may have some insect and mildew problems on young plants which could require treatment. As it warms in the Spring, insect and mildew problems may show up again but at that point I usually just remove problem plants since the season is nearing the end anyway.
Leaf lettuce and loose head varieties do best here rather than iceberg varieties. I like to plant 5 or 6 different types including romaine, Bibb, butter crunch, red leaf, black seeded Simpson and oak leaf. There are hundreds of different varieties to choose from, each with different shapes, sizes and colors. In fact, most are so attractive they look great in the landscape and in containers – as pretty as ornamental kale and much tastier. In our garden, a 4 foot by 6-foot planting of lettuce will satisfy our extended family with plenty extra to give to friends.
Most of the lettuce we eat is in the form of salads and on sandwiches, but lettuce can also be treated like many other greens and used in soups, braises, wraps and stir fries. Lettuce also makes a great addition to juice mixes.
Whether you are an old hand at vegetable gardening or just starting out, lettuce is a must have in your cool season garden.
Brazos Valley Gardener, Orchardist, Apiarist and Instructor