Hello again fellow gardening enthusiasts! It appears that fall was late in arrival and winter might be with us earlier than usual. Who knows for sure??
Regardless, we are well into our autumn crops. We harvested our first broccoli of the season at the end of October and the residents here at Sunshine Care, A Community of Assisted Living Homes in Poway CA, have been enjoying hundreds of lbs of beautiful lettuce. Looks like our first cut of Cheddar cauliflower will be this week. Asian stir fries have been added to our menus with the harvests of bok choy and the final cuts of zucchini and green beans. The tomatoes are almost entirely out. The bell peppers and cucumbers are no longer with us. Almost all of the winter crop rows in the fields are covered with frost cloth, which is the key to pest control. Snail bait is close at hand to be tossed at any signs of precipitation. That’s when those little gastropods come out of their hiding places and are susceptible to eradication.
I want to talk about one of our most productive and relished vegetables. LETTUCE!
We will easily harvest over a ton of lettuce for our family here this year. Salads are bountiful. We stick to highly nutritious varieties and generally harvest on the younger side to keep the flavor fresh and sweet. The greatest thing about how we grow lettuce is that it is the cheapest thing we grow and totally organic and pesticide free. Our children in our Seed to Table program along with our residents and special needs groups, do all of my seeding. It takes relatively no time to plant and harvest is a breeze. So let’s go through the steps.
Varieties- I purchase almost all of my lettuce seed from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. I lean toward large headed varieties especially the Romaine types. The summer is the toughest time for us to grow lettuce, with September being the most difficult. The Romaine varieties do very well in fall, winter, spring and most of the summer. When there are long stretches of hot weather, even the bolt –resistant varieties struggle and need to be harvested at the “baby” stage. In the summer, you need to switch to other types of lettuce such as the leaf types and the summer crisp types, looking for heat tolerance-i.e. bolting and tipburn resistance. Let’s go through the different types of lettuce.
- Romaine/Cos Lettuce- These will form dense, often closed heads, sweet in flavor and crunchy in texture. The hearts are blanched and they can be spaced 10-12 inches apart for full -sized heads
- Leaf Lettuce- These will form open heads. Typical leaf varieties have broad leaves with somewhat curled margins. Oakleaf varieties have a lobed margin and the lollo varieties have broad leaves which are heavily curled on the margins. These can be spaced 8” part for full- sized heads.
- Butterhead Lettuce- These will form closed heads with a sweet buttery flavor and delicate texture. The hearts are blanched and can be spaced 8-10” apart for full -sized heads.
- Summer Crisp/Batavia Lettuce- These will form open heads that resemble a cross between leaf and iceberg lettuces. The flavor is similar to leaf types with a crunchier texture. These tend to be more heat tolerant than typical leaf lettuce. Space them 8-10” apart for full-sized heads.
- Iceberg Lettuce. These form closed heads resembling cabbage. They have a mild flavor and crunchy texture. These need to be spaced 12” apart for full -sized heads
I will focus on the varieties we use during our late and early seasons here in Poway CA. Romaine types are the key players, due to their high nutritional value.
- Jericho Romaine- This a blonde romaine for both baby leaf and full –sized heads. They produce tall, heavy heads that are bright light green with excellent eating quality. They are both heat and tipburn resistant. Harvest in 28 days for baby and 57 days for full size.
- Green Forest Romaine- This is one of the most attractive green romaine varieties for full-sized heads. They are early, tall, dark green and resistant to sclerotinia and corky root. It is a slow-bolting variety and is tolerant to tipburn. Little damage is incurred when harvesting due to the smooth ribs. Full-sized heads in 56 days.
- Coastal Star Romaine- This is another full-sized head variety that is heat tolerant and corky root resistant. The large heavy heads are dark green with a good, sweet flavor. Full-sized heads in 57 days.
- Red Rosie Romaine- This attractive, light red romaine for full size has an upright habit. The leaves are red more than half the way down then fade to green creating a unique “half and half” look. It is resistant to many races of Downy Mildew. Full heads in 56 days.
- Red Cash Romaine- Compared to other red romaine varieties, Red Cash has a more attractive color with denser heads. The slightly ruffled leaves are a dark red with a contrasting bright green base. It is resistant to many types of downy mildew and should be harvested just before the full-size head stage for maximum flavor. This will take about 50 days.
Most people sprinkle lettuce seeds in a row and later have to thin them to the desired spacing. I do not have the time for that task. Since we have a beautiful, heated greenhouse and plenty of children and residents in our many Intergenerational group activities, along with a few special needs groups, all of my seeding is done for me. They use seedling trays and Sunshine Seedling Mix #3 (available at any Grangetto’s Garden Center in San Diego Co.) Whenever possible, I acquire pelletized lettuce seed. This was a monumental break through when we switched to pelletized seed s due to the fact that some of our less manually dexterous helpers were able to manipulate placing the seeds in the seedling trays, one seed at a time. This results in a single gorgeous transplant that goes straight to the field. Pelletizing improves the shape, size and uniformity of the raw lettuce seeds for more accurate sowing by hand and machine. The pellets are made of inert materials which don’t harm the seeds or soil. As the pellets absorb water they dissolve, allowing immediate access to oxygen for fast uniform seedling emergence. Many pelletized lettuce seeds are primed to enhance germination, but this process can decrease the storage life of the seed. So purchase only what you can use in a season.
Almost all of the pelletized lettuce seed from Johnny’s costs only $3.95 for a packet of 250 seeds. That’s a lot of lettuce!
Transplanting in the field- After 3-4 weeks in the greenhouse, the seedlings are ready for planting. We have adopted a unique system here to transplant our lettuce starts. When we are planting our broccoli or cauliflower in a bed, we set them 18” apart on both sides of the drip tape in a zig-zag fashion. The broccoli seedlings are set about 3-4” from the tape on each side. Once they are all in the ground, we plant the lettuce starts in between each broccoli or cauliflower, in both rows down the bed. A 50ft bed will consist of 33 broccoli or cauliflower on both sides of the tape(66 total) along with a lettuce plant in between each one (66 total). The lettuce utilizes the same water regime and fertilization of the broccoli and cauliflower. This is all a freebie! We also incorporate this planting technique when growing bok choy , spinach and kale instead of lettuce.
Pest Control- Do to the fact that we cover these rows with a frost prevention white cloth, we tend to have no insect problems with our lettuce. The cloth adds a couple extra degrees of heat at night while allowing 85% of the sun’s rays in during the day. This barrier keeps most aphid and cabbage loopers from causing problems with the broccoli, cauliflower and lettuce. If there is an issue with aphids, insecticidal soaps or oils help tremendously. In the case of loopers, apply any BT worm control product. The biggest problem we see with the lettuce is damage from snails, slugs and earwigs. Before we cover up the beds right after planting, we apply Sluggo Plus which is an organic means to handle sow bugs, snails, slugs, cutworms and earwigs. This does a great job for us, but be ready to possibly hit them again after a rain. All these products can be found at Grangetto’s and the cloth at Watertech Ag Supply in Escondido. Just tell them you want the stuff Farmer Roy uses.
Fertilization- We do nothing to fertilize our lettuce or bok choy. When prepping the beds to plant the broccoli or cauliflower, we add worm castings, composted chicken manure, compost made on site and a preplant fertilizer like Dr Earth’s All Purpose 4-4-4. There is enough food there to carry you through the lettuce growing phase.
Harvest- After 3 or 4 weeks the lettuce should be ready to harvest when seeking full -sized heads. Pull the lettuce, cut the roots and rinse them off. That’s it!! Some people like to take leaves off to enjoy nightly but in our case, we pull them out entirely so the bed is now solely for the broccoli or cauliflower. This tells me to side dress with more 4-4-4 of apply fish emulsion or some other organic fertilizer to carry to the broccoli or cauliflower to harvest. They should be ready in about another month depending on the variety used.
The way I have explained, keeps us with a constant supply of beautiful heads of lettuce weekly and costs virtually nothing. Give it a try!
So get some lettuce seed and stagger your plantings and you will enjoy all the goodness of nutritious lettuce in your salads, wraps and sandwiches.
I welcome anyone to come and visit our organic fields and tour our facilities. Call or email me with questions or comments. Check out our website www.sunshinecare.com to learn more about what sets us apart from the competition and to stay abreast of our free monthly garden lectures on the 3rd Saturday of the month (except Dec.).
Good luck in your garden!
For more info, check our website www.sunshinecare.com or give me a call or email me.