Finding space for some Lettuce
17th Jul 2004
It's approaching peak growing time in the vegetable garden now with plenty of plants in need of attention wherever you look. Many times I"ve left the house to carry out certain tasks only to return a few hours later having accomplished none of the work that I had set out to complete. Such is gardening that I always find other little jobs to do as I stroll down between the rows and before I know it, I'm completely engrossed in a totally new task.
I have to admit that I really do enjoy a fresh lettuce sandwich straight from the garden, and the trick with these is to sow them little and often. My father was undoubtedly an accomplished grower of vegetables but he did have one bad habit, he always sowed a long row of lettuce, the full width of his plot. The consequence was that we were overwhelmed with lettuce heads even after he had shared them out, with nothing to follow them for weeks;. it does however possibly explain my love for them!
There"s a lot of good work being done by the breeders on many varieties and there's nothing as colourful and shapely as a bed of mixed lettuces (picture forwarded) incorporating the likes of Lollo Rossa, red or green Salad Bowl (the cut and come again lettuce) Sangria, Fristina, and the old faithful and tasty little Gem. However my favourite is any of the butterhead varieties such as Sandrine or Sunny, just remove some of the older outer leaves leaving the centre heart which is soft and brittle and oh, so mouth-watering.
There should be some room in your plot by now where the early peas have been harvested or perhaps where a row of early potatoes or shallots were growing. If you do have space where the peas were growing then use that; conveniently peas happen to have some small nodules attached to their roots. These nodules, particularly if the old haulms are simply hoed off, release nitrogen into the soil which is so essential to give lettuce a quick start.
If your ground is in good heart with plenty of organic matter having been incorporated over the years, then you won't need to add any extra fertilisers. Fork over the ground if necessary otherwise simply rake the soil back and fore until you have removed any lumps and form a friable level surface. Open a shallow furrow in the soil, only about a metre or so in length and about half an inch deep and thinly sow the lettuce seed directly into the furrow. If you do sow too thickly, don't worry unduly as the row will need thinning later.
Use the rake to cover the seed over by pulling it along the length of the row, never across it as you may pull the seed all over the cultivated area. With the rake again, use the back of it to compact the fine soil against the seed ensuring a better and more even germination. It could well be quite dry at the time of sowing so a little tip is to dribble some water inside the open furrow prior to sowing and once the seed is covered, water along the row using a watering can with a fine rose. Lettuce seed generally germinate quite easily but at this time of year it can depend on temperature, consistently too high a temperature can inhibit germination, equally, they must never be allowed to dry out. Once the seedlings are through is the time to sow another small batch, this way, using the correct varieties, together with some protection, you can enjoy lettuce for weeks to come.
Thinning out and transplanting
When the seedlings are over an inch tall you can start to thin them out, some perhaps for transplanting in other areas which always helps to delay the final harvest. Others can be harvested a week or two later and utilised in the kitchen. Prior to thinning, always moisten the ground first and keep the transplanted seedlings moist at all times Thin eventually to leave approximately 9 inches between each lettuce head, remember that the period between a perfect lettuce head at it's optimum growth and one that is going to seed can be as little as a week. When a few heads of lettuce are ready to harvest, then do so, even it means sharing them between friends, it's far better than seeing them go to seed. Never forget that young lettuce seedlings, on a warm moist summer evening, are the tastiest of dishes for slugs so scatter judiciously a few slug pellets along the row.