Sunday, November 02, 2008


This year’s Labour weekend turned out to be another one of those characterized by inclement weather – or, at the very least, variable weather. With the wind and rain so bad, I went to the movies at the local film festival and a friend and his partner strolled in and sat with us. She gently chided me for saying that it was too early to plant tomatoes yet. I wonder how she was feeling after the cold weather and frosts of the last week!
Fortunately there are still plenty of plants that can be popped into the vegetable garden while we wait for the soil to be warm enough for water melons, basil and sweet corn.
I would start with lettuces because it is not that far away from the salad sandwich season, and at this time of the year, lettuces are just so easy to grow well. They are not fussy as to growing conditions, but, like most vegetables, prefer a moist, well-drained soil in full sun. Being a leafy crop, they need lots of nitrogen, so you can go mad with the compost for them, digging it into the soil before you plant, or even growing in pure compost.
The next step is to decide whether you want to grow your own seedlings. It is very easy to do, and it is certainly very economical - lettuce seed is very cheap. I have to confess that all those years of raising millions of lettuces from seed have rather soured me on the process, and I am happy for my local nursery to do that part of the job for me. I usually just buy a packet or a punnet of mixed plants
If you are raising your own plants, just sow the seed in a light, warm place, and make sure you keep the watering up. I think it is best to raise them in boxes filled with seed raising mix, but generations of gardeners have used a small piece of the garden, with well-worked soil, and that does the job just as efficiently. Once the plants are sufficiently large they can be transplanted out.
I grow a mix of varieties, and have more or less given up on the large hearting types like ‘Webb’s Wonderful’ and ‘Great Lakes’, only growing oak-leaf types that can be harvested one leaf at a time from the outside. There are so many different varieties it would be pointless to list them here, but the butterheaded types, which make a loose head, are suitable for this type of growing, as are both green and red types with frilly leaves. Other gardeners prefer the more upright growing cos and romaine lettuces, used in Caesar salads.
You could even do a bit of creative gardening by making a little hedge or edging of lettuces – especially the coloured ones - as they look so decorative. Alternatively, if space is a bit tight, you can plant out between slower growing crops, like cabbage and broccoli. By the time the brassicas are starting to grow larger, the lettuces will be out of the way.
I read somewhere that lettuces are the sort of plant that live fast and die soon. That is not a bad way to describe it, and like most things that live fast, they need lots of food. As well as planting your seedlings in humus-rich soil, it is a good idea to ensure they have a steady supply of nutriment through the growing season. You can use any plant food high in nitrogen.

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