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Plant Lettuce in Your Small Kitchen Garden

Small Kitchen Garden Lettuce Sprouts

The earliest lettuce sprouts in my small kitchen garden are no bigger than pebbles in the soil. Cracks in the soil indicate high clay content; clay cracks as it dries out.

I planted lettuce and spinach in my small kitchen garden nearly seven weeks ago. These are crops you can plant outdoors as soon as the soil thaws. I argue that there’s no hurry: cold weather crops will survive a heavy frost, but they won’t grow much if the temperature remains low. So, I tend to wait a few weeks after the thaw before I plant any cold weather crops.

On the other hand, if you wait too long, some cold-weather crops may not produce to their greatest potential before summer heat shuts them down. Pea plants, for example, wilt and die when cooked by summer heat. Lettuce and spinach grow slowly when nights are cool and days are warm, but when nights are warm and days are hot, these greens “bolt” meaning they send up stalks of flowers in a rush to make seeds before the heat becomes unbearable.

Don’t Wait to Plant Lettuce

Lettuce Seeds for a Small Kitchen Garden

A handful of lettuce seeds hardly resembles the food I begin to harvest about a month after planting. I’m always a bit awed that so much grows from such tiny packages.

If you’re in hardiness zone six or five, it’s not too late to enjoy a lettuce or spinach crop. It takes about 40 days from the day you plant seeds till it’s reasonable to harvest young plants—or leaves from them. If you plant now (the end of May), lettuce and spinach will grow quickly, though it’ll probably hit the wall in July.

Whether I plant lettuce early or late, I use a simple method that forces me to harvest young plants aggressively: I plant many seeds very close together—ideally about 3-5 seeds per square inch. Here’s the procedure:

Before You Plant Lettuce

Your Small Kitchen Garden has presented several posts that explain how to prepare garden beds for planting. The first of these articles explains the benefits of preparing soil. The second and third provide step-by-step instructions for preparing traditional planting beds using traditional methods, and using the “minimal till” approach that I use in my garden. The fourth article suggests one approach to preparing soil in a raised planting bed. Links appear at the bottom of this box.

The instructions in this post for planting lettuce assume that you’ve prepared your soil and you now have a furrow awaiting seeds.

1. Prepare to plant

2. Soil Preparation 1

3. Soil Preparation 2

4. Soil Preparation 3

1. Prepare soil according to the method that best fits your situation. The box, Before You Plant Lettuce provides links to posts that explain various methods of preparing soil. When you’ve created a six- to eight-inch-wide furrow in which to plant, you’re ready for step 2 below.

2. Read the planting instructions on the package holding your lettuce seeds. Chances are, they call for a planting depth of ¼ inch. Depending on the variety of lettuce, the instructions also may include thinning guidelines such as Thin to 12” between plants. Ultimately, you plants will need to be approximately this far apart or they won’t have space to mature. But I encourage you to start them much closer.

3. Pinch a bunch of lettuce seeds between you thumb and index finger, and sprinkle them around in the furrow as you’d sprinkle seasoning into a frying pan of cooking food. I think of this as seasoning the soil with seeds. You’re trying to deliver from two to five seeds on every square inch of soil in you furrow. As your pinch of seeds runs out, take another pinch and sprinkle areas that you missed with the first pinch. Repeat this until you’re confident there are seeds spread the full length and width of the row.

4. Cover the seeds with ¼ inch of soil. I usually pick up lumps of soil from the edges of the furrow and crumble them into the furrow. If there aren’t appropriate lumps, I sprinkle hands full of loose soil onto the seeds. Were I planting dozens of feet of rows, I’d rake soil onto the seeds, but it only takes a few minutes to cover a 14 foot row with hand-sprinkled soil.

I planted three three-foot sections of lettuce. The first holds a salad mix with four types of leaf lettuce. The second holds Ithaca head lettuce, a flavorful lettuce that forms crisp, small heads. The third holds Romaine lettuce. This is the first time I’ve grown Romaine. While the plants in these photos are already crowded, they aren’t yet big enough to fill a salad bowl simply by thinning.

5. Gently pat down the soil in the furrow. I press lightly with my fingers and the palm of my hand. This encourages soil to stay in place when it rains and when I hand-water the newly-planted seeds.

6. Water deeply and then water daily until the plants emerge. Then water if the soil looks dry or if the plants look wilted.

Crowding in Your Small Kitchen Garden

Your lettuce plants will be very crowded, but resist the urge to thin them until they produce leaves big enough to eat. This may take a few weeks, but then watch you’re your crowded plants may grow so fast that it become hard to keep up with them.

I take my first harvest from the middle of the furrow. I work my hand among the plants and grasp several at once right against the soil. I gently pull them from the ground, leaving a small gap in the lettuce patch. Ideally, I work the entire row for a single meal. If there’s simply more lettuce than we can consume, and the plants are pressed tightly together, I may pull many small plants and toss them on the mulch or compost pile; it’s important to keep air spaces among the remaining plants or they’ll hold moisture between them leading to possible problems with slugs, snails, insects, and even rot.

When my crowded lettuce plants are 3- to 4-inches tall, I work my hand into the mass of plants and pull several up along with their roots. I twist the roots off and toss them away, but the young, tender leaves go into the evening’s salad. I like to thin starting in the middle of the row. Ultimately, only five or six plants may mature, and thinning is necessary to provide space for them to grow.

As I harvest over the course of two or three weeks, I take plants always from the densest sections of the row. As lettuce matures in two months, I thin at a pace that I estimate will provide the requisite spacing about six weeks after planting.

For leaf lettuce, when you’ve thinned enough that the plants don’t crowd each other, change your harvesting technique: now use scissors to cut leaves from the plants an inch or two above the soil. More leaves should grow on the cut plants.

For head lettuce, continue to harvest entire plants as-needed. As heads approach maturity, you’ll need fewer of them to make a meal, and a head you harvest near the end of the season may last for several meals.

Here’s a video I made that demonstrates both how I plant lettuce and how I thin and harvest to make room for some plants. It’s about 6 and a half minutes long. Please enjoy:

 

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Small Kitchen Garden Soil-Preparation – 2

My last post provided rationale for working the soil in your small kitchen garden. Sure, you can dig a hole and drop in a seed, and a plant will probably grow. However, conditioning the soil to improve drainage, PH balance, and nutrition significantly increases your chances of success. It also improves the yields of your vegetable plants.

That said, I’m lazy. I’m not excited about spreading manure and I don’t have a power tiller, so my soil preparation has evolved into a minimalist procedure. My raised vegetable bed is large enough that I must walk in it to prepare it, plant it, weed it, and harvest from it.

Extracting a dandelion from your walk-in garden bed employs the same technique you’d use to turn soil: Push the garden fork in to the full depth of its tines, pry the soil out of the ground, and turn it over. When I remove dendelions, I sometimes insert the fork on four sides of the dandelion before prying the plant out of the ground. This loosens the soil and decreases the chance of breaking off the tap root deep underground. After lawnmower noise, my least favorite sound in the garden is the dull thud of a snapping dandelion tap root that runs deeper than my garden fork can reach.

Low-Till Planting

Here are the steps I follow to prepare my raised vegetable bed for spring planting. This approach has been very effective, and it’s most appropriate for modest gardens in which the soil gets compacted from foot traffic through the growing season:

This year I’m using apple sticks (the bounty of pruning season) and pink yarn to mark rows in my garden. I tie the yarn three or four inches above the ground so I can easily work under it with a hoe.

1. Decide where to run a planting row.

2. Turn the row of soil over. I prefer to use a garden fork. I dig a fork’s width swath from one end of the row to the other, plunging the fork in to the full depth of its tines, prying the fork-full of soil out of the ground, and turning that fork-full over so the soil that was on the surface ends up at the bottom of the hole from which I removed it.

3. Remove all weeds and their roots from the soil you turn over, and excavate all other weeds from either side of the row you’re working.

4. Break up soil clumps with a garden rake, and smooth over the surface within the fork-width row.

5. Set a stake at each end of the row, and stretch twine between the stakes. This provides a guide to ensure a straight row so you can accurately match your planting to your plan for the year’s garden.

6. If your garden bed tends to collect rain water, mound soil from between the rows onto the rows, creating six-to-nine-inch berms. By mounding the soil you turn each row into a raised bed that will reduce the chance of excess moisture damaging your crops.

If your garden is on high ground that drains quickly, don’t mound the soil; step 7 will result in depressed planting rows that catch and hold rain water; an advantage especially in a dry year.

Using a low-till method, I’ve turned and raked the soil (top-left) before I cut a furrow about six inches deep and as wide as the hoe. From years of gardening, the soil is in decent shape, but the mature compost on the shovel looks obviously more organic than the soil. Whether using compost or manure, I use a hoe to mix it with soil that I scrape off the bottom of the trench (bottom-left). I’d plant directly in this compost/soil mix (bottom-center), but if it were a manure/soil mix, I’d cover it lightly with soil (bottom-right) before planting.

7. For seeds, hoe the rows into trenches to receive the seeds. For seedlings, dig slightly-larger-than-root-ball-sized holes along the rows in which to set the plants. For seeds or seedlings, dig at least three inches deeper than you intend to plant the seeds or the seedlings; this leaves room to add compost or other humus.

Because the dimensions of trenches and holes vary depending on the types of vegetables you’re planting and—for seedlings—on the condition they’re in, step seven is where planting instructions begin in upcoming posts.

8. Dump three inches of compost, manure, or mushroom soil into the trench or into each hole. If you’re adding sulfur or crushed limestone to adjust the PH for a particular type of plant, do so at this point.

9. Mix the organic stuff with the soil that’s in the bottom of the trench or hole.

Being in a slightly raised planting bed, my garden soil drains quickly. So, I deliberately finish planting rows and holes to be two to three inches below the normal soil level. A plant’s-eye view shows a finished row with young spinach plants just poking through. If my planting bed drained slowly, I’d mound the soil before cutting planting rows or digging holes. Each row would sit above the natural soil level, turning a row into its own raised bed garden.

10. If you’ve used raw organic stuff such as horse or cow manure or mushroom soil (which is partially composted), sprinkle a half inch to an inch of soil over the compost layer; you’ll plant seeds or seedlings on this layer of untreated soil. Providing the cushion gives the roots a chance to get established before coming in contact with rich, possibly acidic humus. Also, heavy watering you’ll do to start seeds and seedlings will leach salts out of raw humus before the roots reach it.

If you’ve used mature compost as the organic matter, plant directly in the mixed soil and compost. The mixture will be equivalent to that of a fine potting soil; a great medium to get new roots growing quickly.

Concerning Raised Planting Beds

What distinguishes the classic raised vegetable bed is that you can work the bed without ever setting foot in it. A traditional raised bed is no more than four feet across so you can reach to the middle from either side. You needn’t build retaining walls to get some of the benefits of a raised bed. If you limit your in-ground beds to four feet across (any length is fine as long as you can walk along both sides of the bed), you’ll be able to work them without walking in them, just as you would raised beds.

Preparing soil in such narrow beds and laying out crops in them allows very different strategies than you’re likely to use in a traditional walk-in garden bed. In an upcoming post, we’ll talk about how to get narrow beds ready for planting, and explore ways you might lay out your vegetables in them.

 

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Answers from a Master Gardener – 2

My neighbor installed a garden shed near the property line. It provides a Four Seasons Hotel layover for marauding woodchucks who especially like peaches fresh off my trees.

If you’re growing a small kitchen garden, it’s helpful to know a master gardener who also has a kitchen garden. For those who don’t know a master gardener, I asked what questions you’d ask, if given the chance. Then, I asked those questions of Ginger Pryor, the director of Penn State University’s Master Gardener program. In my last post (Answers from a Master Gardener – 1), I presented some of the insights Ginger shared. This post continues the presentation.

Grow Organic?

Twitter acquaintance @hardknocksmba asked how to grow organic produce with the least possible effort; is growing organically worth the effort? Ginger’s immediate response was, “No.” To produce certifiably organic crops you must be quite intimate with your plants. Ginger agreed you can use many organic practices without working too hard, but you’re likely to face a crisis or two and turn to non-organic solutions for expediency.

Ginger says it’s a lot of work to grow commercially viable organic produce… if you’re a lazy gardener, you won’t be happy trying to maintain a completely organic garden.

Marauding Critters

@hardknocksmba asked the kind of open-ended question that draws stories from every gardener: How can I keep critters out of my garden? Ginger and I had quite a discussion about critters beginning with speculation about which critters might be causing problems.

Until you see an animal marauding among your growing produce, you can’t be sure what’s doing the damage. And, of course, gardens in different neighborhoods will have different challenges. For example, deer and voles threaten Ginger’s home kitchen garden, but rabbits and groundhogs harass plantings at the office where she works.

Ginger shared a story about a kids’ garden project in which some critter was eating only the young watermelon plants. It turned out that a skunk was choosing watermelons from among a variety of options.

I’m not a master gardener, but I have a suggestion for anyone whose small kitchen garden is getting eaten by sneaky, unseen critters: Install one of these. A live red-tailed hawk will strike terror in the hearts of small rodents; it might keep down the pocket dog population as well.

In a remote rural setting, Ginger is involved with a kitchen garden having an animal fence that extends five feet high, and one foot into the soil. Five feet is high enough that deer can’t jump the fence, and the underground reach keeps out burrowing animals. This is reasonable protection for a garden that gets attention only a few days a week. A small kitchen garden in an urban or suburban yard may not face threats that require such a high fence, though Ginger assured me a woodchuck will climb over a fence (and woodchucks thrive in many suburban neighborhoods).

More About Critters

I related my squirrel and pears story to Ginger (posted in Your Small Kitchen Garden back in September). I had left some pears on the tree when I harvested, but then watched a squirrel return to my tree day-after-day to make off with the ripening fruit. About that time, I’d learned from other gardeners that squirrels would rather drink water than eat fruit, so stealing pears indicated that the squirrel was thirsty; putting out a bowl of water might end its larcenous behavior.

Ginger couldn’t confirm whether this would work, but she did emphasize that it can take some heavy surveillance to identify whatever is damaging your crops. A variety of rodents might bite off emerging sprouts. Others might leave tooth-mark-scars in low-hanging fruits. Once you identify a culprit, it’s much easier to take appropriate steps to stop it.

Still to Come

In the third installment of this series, Answers from a Master Gardener, Ginger shares thoughts on rooftop gardening, on solving plant disease problems, and on the most common mistakes kitchen gardeners make. Subscribe to Your Small Kitchen Garden’s RSS feed, or check back again in a few days for the conclusion of Answers from a Master Gardener.

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The 2009 PA Farm Show – 1

The Pennsylvania Farm Show’s 700 pound butter sculpture sits in an air conditioned booth which makes capturing it in a single photograph impossible. Fortunately, you can make out the butter cow in this picture.

This morning I left my small kitchen garden behind and drove 60 miles south to the Farm Show Complex in Harrisburg. Snow had fallen overnight, so the first 12 miles of roads were buried. The deep winter weather made the Farm Show’s lure even greater. I wasn’t disappointed.

After a cold walk across the parking lot, I entered the complex and left winter behind. I bolted to the poultry building as judging had already started, but I learned that the judges would be working for three or four hours. So, I attended a presentation by a Penn State Master Gardener, Ginger Pryor who coordinates the Master Gardener program. Coincidentally, her presentation was about pollinator-friendly gardening, a topic I’d written about two weeks ago as a guest at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show blog. Actually, she emphasized all pollinators: bees, flies, butterflies, and hummingbirds.

Eye candy for the chicken enthusiasts. The birds at the Farm Show are intriguing, though there’s something it takes getting used to about a live poulry exhbit: Chickens smell unpleasant.

Afterward, I asked her for an interview during the week. Unfortunately, today was her last day at the show, but she assured me master gardeners would be on-hand and I’d be able to sit down with one to pass along the questions people have asked on Twitter (and any you post here).

A Farm Show Workout

The Farm Show Complex sprawls, and, while the Farm Show, itself, is on, you can take ten minutes to walk from one end to the other. I bounced from event-to-event, catching a demonstration by mounted police, English show-riding on draft horses, chicken judging (and egg hatching), vegetable displays, the legendary butter sculpture, amazing horse trailer/camper combos, and compelling exhibits about agricultural issues.

I wore myself out with all the walking, and along the way I lost track of winter; inside the complex is like a state fair, and my brain naturally assumes late summer or early fall when it’s at a fair.

Yes, there is a pumpkin at the Farm Show weighing more than 880 pounds.

I took a lot pictures, though the indoor lighting isn’t great for action photos. I also shot some video. With the packed day today, and another scheduled for tomorrow, I won’t get any video posted until Monday. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the photos I’ve included in this post.

Your Small Kitchen Garden Master Gardener

There’s still time for you to submit questions you’d like to put to a certified master gardener. It’ll be Wednesday or Thursday before I get to interview one of the master gardeners at the show. Post your questions here, or tweet them to the hash tag #pafarmshow or to @cityslipper on Twitter.

 

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Small Kitchen Garden Tech

The content tag for this blog begins: Your Small Kitchen Garden presents news and insights into the home kitchen garden with emphasis on simplicity. Well… I have news that had my gardening eyes rolling with disdain at the same time my geek cortex was shouting “How cool is that?” I just learned about “EasyBloom” from a company called PlantSense.

Perhaps you’ve heard of EasyBloom, though it’s so new, you can only pre-order it at this time: it’s a USB device that you plug into your computer to configure, and then plug into your soil for data-collection. There are two reasons you’d plug EasyBloom into your soil:

  1. To help you decide what to plant in specific places in your garden
  2. To diagnose an unhealthy plant’s ailments so you can help the plant recover

Choosing Plants for your Small Kitchen Garden

When you have a place in which you want to plant something… but you’re not sure what to plant… configure the EasyBloom device into “recommend mode.” Stick the device in the soil for 24 hours, then plug it back in to your computer’s USB port. EasyBloom uploads data to the PlantSense web site. The web site analyzes the data and suggests plants that should do well in the location where EasyBloom spent its preceding 24 hours.

Diagnosing a Sick Plant

When you have a sick plant in your garden, configure the EasyBloom to “monitor mode.” Set the device next to the ailing plant for 24 hours, then plug it into your computer and upload its data to the PlantSense web site. Based on the data, and (apparently) on your interaction with the web site, you’ll be able to diagnose the plant’s problem and take steps to curing it.

Gimmick or Groovy?

Is EasyBloom a gimmick, or is it a groovy tool for a small kitchen garden? I don’t know. It sounds like a neat idea, but it also seems a little nutty.

The greatest roadblock for me is the price tag; a single EasyBloom sensor costs $60.

It takes about three years for me to spend $60 on my small kitchen garden… I can’t imagine spending $60 for a single gardening gadget.

On the other hand, you can use the sensor as many times as you like. Traditionally, a serious gardener gathers soil samples and mails them to a cooperative extension office for analysis, and then plants accordingly—or makes soil amendments to accommodate the desired plants. It can take a lot of trial-and-error to solve problems. The idea of having a device that connects your garden to a professionally-developed diagnostic system is compelling.

That said, unless Mr. and Mrs. PlantSense care to send me an EasyBloom and ask my opinion about it, the old home kitchen gardener in me will continue to work my small kitchen garden the old fashioned way: I’ll mulch with grass clippings, I’ll dump autumn leaves on the soil for the winter and turn them under in the spring, and I’ll add compost everywhere I plant something. If my plants struggle, I’ll trust experience and trial-and-error to pull them through… and I might float questions on various gardening forums on the internet.

Still, my geek cortex says that EasyBloom is really cool.

If you want to try EasyBloom, you can pre-order one now at Amazon. PlanSense hasn’t yet announced when they’ll start shipping.

 

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Critical Information for a Home Kitchen Garden

If you’re constantly scouring the internet for information useful to your small kitchen garden, then you might already have found the videos I’m posting today. For any home kitchen gardener–whether with years of experience, or just starting out–these are well worth the two hours to review. Two hours? Well, yes. Each video is an hour with Professor Robert Norris from UC Davis. He obviously knows his stuff, and has a decent sense of humor.

Professor Norris’s home kitchen garden is in California, so his talks should be especially useful to you west coast gardeners who are deciding what (and whether) to grow over the coming winter. I like Professor Norris’s attitude: don’t garden if you don’t enjoy it. There are many, many gems in his talks, so please find a couple of hours on your calendar over the next few weeks–or just wait for the next rainy day–and treat yourself to these presentations.

Home Vegetable Gardening Part I

 

Home Vegetable Gardening Part II

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