Tuesday, March 2, 2021

The lettuces

Lettuces: fast, easy-to-grow, cool-weather crops

I planted four types of lettuce in this bed: oakleaf,
black-seeded Simpson, drunken woman, & romaine.

Here in North Florida, we grow our cool-weather crops right through the winter. At the end of September, I planted four types of lettuces in a bed next to the house and also planted a curly parsley row there as well. The lettuces were oakleaf, black-seeded Simpson, drunken woman (which was new for us), and romaine. They all did very well, but the romaine gave us the longest and best harvest. I was remiss in not taking any good photos of this bed while it was in its peak. 

With leaf lettuces, you can harvest the outer leaves as needed or you can cut the plant off just above ground level with the hope that the plant would produce new leaves for a second or maybe a third harvest while the weather is still cool, This works best in Florida with varieties of lettuce that are more tolerant of warm weather or ones that are described as "slow-to-bolt."

After a long and bountiful season,
the romaine bolted.

Bolting is the process when a plant begins to produce flowering structures. In most lettuces, you can tell when the bolting is beginning when the stalk elongates and begins to grow taller. Also, in most lettuces, the bolting causes the leaves to become more bitter. This varies depending on variety. You can reduce the bitterness by soaking the leaves in cold water for a few hours. 

For our romaine, I'd been cutting off the whole plant, and early in the season, there was some regrowth from the plants that was quite useable, but by mid-February, even the newly grown sprouts went immediately to flowering structures. Also, at this time, as shown in the photo below, the leaves on the stalks below the flowering structures were only slightly bitter. When I used them mixed with other greens, as in my husband's tabbouleh, their bitterness was hardly noticeable.

A stalk of bolted romaine. The leaves to the right 
of my hand were only slightly bitter.
After harvesting the romaine late in the season,
the new growth bolted immediately and these bitter leaves ended up in the compost.

Extending the harvest

I planted red sails lettuce seeds in early November--about five weeks after the four that I'd planted earlier. By planting seeds later in the season, this balances out your harvest so that everything will not be ready to harvest all at one time. By staggering the planting times, you're also extending the harvesting times. 

I was surprised when the red sails lettuce sprouted that they were pale green without any hint of reddish color. They sprouted too thickly, so I transplanted some of them to a different bed and we ate some of the thinnings as yummy, sweet microgreens.

Red sails lettuce was green at first.
I thinned it: we ate some of the thinnings
as microgreens and I transplanted others
 to a different bed.
Deer ate all of the red sails lettuce, but
did not eat the lettuces near the house.

Oh deer!

One morning, I saw that the deer had been feasting on our red sails lettuce, but fortunately, they'd  not eaten the lettuces next to the house. I put up wire fencing around all the lettuce rows. The deer are selective, because they never eat the broccoli, cabbages, kohlrabi, onions, or garlic. The red sails lettuce recovered from this attack and grew back thicker than ever. And yes, the leaves finally did end up with some good red color. Right now, at the beginning of March, we are still eating the red sails, but some of the stalks have been elongating, so I've been cutting them back right away to prevent the bitterness from building up in those leaves and to see if I can extend the season just a bit longer.

It grew back! An amazing red sails harvest.

I shared quite a bit of lettuce with our neighbors and 
one paid me back with some composted horse manure.

The barter system

Over the course of the season, I'd shared my lettuces with various neighbors. One had more composted horse manure than they needed, so I ended up with a nice pile to work into my beds for this upcoming season and the rest of it will be incorporated into the next compost pile. 

On New Years Day, I heard a chain saws and a wood chipper work on the next road over. I walked over and asked for the load of chips. They were happy to comply. When this happens I let the neighbors know that if they need chips to help themselves. My chip drops are neighborhood assets to be shared.

The barter system is alive and well in our immediate neighborhood. I think that this is a good thing.
I had completed burying kitchen scraps in this bed, so I added an inch of manure. I added finished compost on top of the manure
and covered it with pine straw to await the tomato planting time.

The bed that I enriched with the horse manure is half of the new bed that I referred to in my post, "Enrich soil for crops by composting in place." Sweet onions were growing in the back half of the bed. And just to follow up on that enriching, last summer I grew a very productive set of Seminole pumpkin vines in this bed. 

The lettuce season is ending as the weather warms up, but it has been a bountiful harvest season and it's been fun to try a few new types of lettuce during this stay-at-home time. I hope you are growing more food for your family as a fun and educational group project. 

Green Gardening Matters,
Ginny Stibolt

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