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Posts Tagged ‘plant lettuce’

Weird Lettuce in my Small Kitchen Garden

Bolting Lettuce

Bolting is a lettuce plant’s attempt to reproduce. Until it bolts, the plant tends to maintain a tight leaf bunch: head lettuce wraps its leaves tightly around itself and leaf lettuces remain relatively compact

In summer heat, leaf and head lettuces bolt. That is, they develop stalks that rise out of the leaf mass and produce flowers. While that stalk may contain delicious-looking leaves, the leaves in general become bitter and unpleasant to eat. Usually, when my lettuce plants bolt, I toss them in the compost heap.

The weather in 2009 has confused many a small kitchen garden. Mine (hardiness zone 5b/6a in Central Pennsylvania) has been particularly confused. In Your Home Kitchen Garden, I wrote a post about the awkward transition of my garden from spring crops of peas, lettuce, and spinach to my summer crop of winter squash. As well, I’ve joked quite a bit with gardening friends about weird stuff the weather has wrought.

For example, I’ve stated repeatedly that unusual amounts of rain have given some of my tomato and squash plants trench foot. Trench foot is a very uncomfortable deterioration of the skin of your feet. You get trench foot by standing for extended periods in water – usually cold water. Of course my plants don’t have trench foot, but if there’s a horticultural equivalent of trench foot, my plants have it.

Did my lettuce bolt in June’s heat only to unbolt in July’s unseasonable cold? I suppose not, but the head made an amusing conversation piece, and a terrific salad.

Hot, Cold, Hot, Cold, Hot

About when I started planting back in March, we had unseasonable heat; I was concerned that spring crops would dry out, and I was hopeful of planting summer crops early. The heat lasted only a week, and then it became brisk. April was never warm… and May also was cool; we had frost in late May!

All this cold made my spring crops stall; they did almost nothing until late May. Then, when the days finally warmed, things grew very quickly. We had terrific lettuce salads for four weeks before the plants started to bolt. In late June I had all but given up on the lettuce.

Lo, the temperature dropped! Yes, July nights got very cool—some even in the low 40s. Lettuce thrives in cool weather, and mine started to look more and more edible. I started joking that my lettuce plants were unbolting… and my gardening friends made offhanded remarks.

Lettuce Bolts in Summer Heat

Daytime heat for the past four days has been above 80F degrees. It seems crazy, but the lettuce that spent most of July unbolting is showing signs of re-bolting. So, today, for the first time in my life, I harvested a crisp, delicious head of Ithaca lettuce. In August!

Information about lettuce that’s actually useful to a kitchen gardener:

  • Good Lettuce Gone Bad: Bolting and Flowering | Vegetable Gardening … – Thank you – I did a search to find out why I had some bolting lettuce in my garden so soon, and this helped me to understand WHY the plant does what it does. In this case I think it probably had to do with a recent temperature rise …

  • bolting lettuce – i think bolting lettuce looks funny. this is a romain (or cos) variety, and you can see the flower stalk alone is about twice the size of the head of lettuce itself. i’m growing this on my roof this year to save seeds. …

  • Transplanting Lettuce – I have taken most of the bolting lettuce out and now I have some extra cups. Some of the bolting lettuce I am leaving in so I can see if I can get some seeds. I am not sure how successful I will be with seed collecting. …

 

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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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