Let Us Grow Lettuce
By Will Summers, Master Gardener
Now is the time to plant lettuce, while the soil is still cool and average daytime temperatures low. Lettuce is one of the most nutritious, easy to grow and under-appreciated vegetables. Few people call lettuce the most important garden vegetable. Most people would say tomatoes, squash or beans. However, cultivating lettuce has several advantages too that need your consideration. One thing to consider, I have never been offered lettuce like I’ve been offered surplus tomatoes and squash.
Lettuce is a composite, a family that includes all Chrysanthemums, sunflowers and dandelions. Leaf lettuce is the most popularly grown garden vegetable.
The scientific name for lettuce is Lactuca sativa. The genus name Lactuca originates because of its milky sap. There are five types of lettuce grown in our area. They are: leaf, cos (also called romaine), butterhead, crisphead (also called Iceberg) and stem lettuce (also called asparagus lettuce). Of these, there are at least fifty named varieties. Lettuce originated in the middle-east and spread across the Mediterranean with the Roman Empire. Lettuce was introduced into Western Europe by the Moors late in the middle ages. There is one close relative, prickly lettuce, Lactuca serriola, in southern Illinois, which is an (edible) imported weed from China.
In nearly all vegetable gardening books, the least amount of space is provided for lettuce culture. For these reasons and more, I’ve chosen to praise lettuce cultivation and share it with you.
Plant leaf, cos, and butterhead lettuces as early in the spring as a garden can be prepared. Plan for two or more plantings, two weeks apart for greater duration of harvest. Start a fall garden by planting lettuce the last week in August for a late-season crop.
Lettuce matures in as little as forty to sixty days or longer. Thin young plants to four inches apart for a first harvest. Then, further thin these plants to six or eight inches. I also intersperse radishes. Radishes germinate quickly and mark the rows for the later arriving lettuce. Plant ten lettuce seeds per foot. Plant in single, double or even triple row. Crisphead (iceberg) should be started with plants set 10 to 12 inches apart.
Lettuce is shallow rooted so avoid close cultivation. Thin by cutting off the tops just above the root line. Light, frequent watering, during the growing season yields faster growing and tastier plants. Avoid heavy water soakings, especially in clay soil. Leaf tip burn is common in our area, especially as temperatures warm. Cut off the burned edges and the remaining leaf is good to eat.
With the heat of June, remove remaining plants leaving space for tomatoes and squash. Lettuce turns bitter if allowed to bolt.
I lost appreciation for the crop eating butterleaf lettuce when young. My mother made us children lettuce sandwiches with white bread and Miracle Whip.
Plant a container of lettuce on your patio. Plant a variety and don’t forget to grow the colorful varieties. Please include children in your garden planting because there is no more a successful vegetable for young gardeners
Lettuce anecdote: Lettuce is the only vegetable that is never cooked but is found in nearly every meal.
Lettuce Joke: How do you make a honeymoon salad? Answer: Lettuce alone, with no dressing.
For more gardening information, please contact your county master gardeners, the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Office, or your local public library.
Please visit us at the annual plant swap, held Saturday, April 25 at the Nashville Public Library. Bring some plants to swap or just visit with other gardeners.
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