Spring Forward into Salad Season

There are few things more welcome to winter-weary gardeners than the first signs of spring in the plant world -- buds swelling, asparagus tips poking through the soil, the cheerful blossoms of crocuses opening their faces to the sun. And there are few things that taste better to a vegetable gardener than the tender lettuce and greens of the season's first homegrown salad. There is a wide variety of lettuces and greens that thrive in cool spring weather. Now is the time to sow some seeds so you can soon be enjoying that delicious first harvest.

Let Us Name the Lettuces

If the word lettuce conjures up a plastic-wrapped head of iceberg on a supermarket shelf, you are in for a treat. There are many different kinds of lettuces and and salad greens that are easy to grow and provide a nutritious, attractive, and tasty mix for your salad bowl.

Leaf lettuces are fast growing plants that are ready for harvest in as little as 45 days, even less for a light harvest of baby leaves. Leaves may be bright green or rich red, and have wavy or notched edges. You can harvest the entire plant or extend your harvest by selectively picking the outer leaves.

Butterhead lettuce, also called bibb or Boston lettuce, has especially tender, succulent leaves that form a loose head. The leaves of some varieties are tinged with red.

Head lettuce includes the familiar' Iceberg' variety and forms a firm head of crisp, juicy leaves.

Romaine lettuce is also known as cos. It forms a loose head of sturdy, elongated green leaves. Romaine and leaf lettuce are the highest in nutrition among all the lettuces.

Salad greens such as arugula, corn salad and mizuna are cold-tolerant and easy to grow, offer an early harvest, and add zest, nutrition, and interest to your salad bowl.

Here is a sampling of just some of the delicious lettuces and greens we offer.

'Black Seeded Simpson' Leaf Lettuce (44-45 days) —This dependable variety of leaf lettuce, with broad, frilled light green leaves, has been a longtime favorite of both home and market gardeners.

'Ruby Red' Leaf Lettuce (53 days) —This slow bolting, red pigmented leaf lettuce is very decorative and maintains its color in hot weather.

'Sierra' Butterhead Lettuce (50 days) —The tall, open heads have bright green, red-tinged leaves that stay tender and sweet even when the weather turns hot.

'Buttercrunch' Butterhead Lettuce (60 days) —A great choice for home gardeners, this variety is slow to bolt and has smooth, dark green leaves.

'Iceberg' Head Lettuce (82 days) —Its crisp white interior has a fine flavor, making it a popular home and market garden variety.

'Paris Island Cos' Romaine Lettuce (66 days) —The outer leaves of this tall, erect variety are dark green, while the interior leaves are pale green to cream.

Getting Started with Lettuce

Lettuce is tolerant of cool soil and cool weather, so you can plant seeds in a well-prepared seedbed as much as 4 weeks before your last frost date. Lettuce seeds are small, so make sure you have raked the seedbed smooth and removed stones and large clods of soil so the germinating seeds can shoulder their way through to the surface.

Wide row planting works well for a lettuce crop. Simply scatter the seeds thinly over the surface and just barely cover them with soil; the seeds need light to germinate. Keep the seedbed moist but not soggy until seeds sprout. Then you'll need to thin, beginning when the seedlings have several sets of leaves. But all those tender young thinnings needn't go to waste; just toss them into the salad bowl. Follow the directions on the seed packet for the correct spacing for the kind of lettuce you're growing.

To keep your harvest going and to make sure you have enough, but not too much, lettuce ready to pick at any one time, make successive, small sowings every 10-14 days.

Get a Head Start Indoors

Many gardeners like to start their lettuce seedlings indoors. This gives you a little bit of a jump on the season and allows you to space seedlings precisely in the garden without the chore of thinning. Start seeds indoors about 4-5 weeks before your last frost date and set hardened off seedlings in the garden when seedlings are several inches tall.

You can continue to make successive sowings in pots for transplants even as the weather warms to make it easier to place individual plants in the garden. When the weather gets hot, lettuce will bolt or go to seed, becoming bitter and inedible. For summer harvest, choose varieties that have been selected to be bolt-resistant, and locate plants where they get some afternoon shade from taller crops.

How to Harvest

Harvests of leaf lettuce and greens can begin as soon as the leaves are a usable size. You can simply pinch the outer leaves off gently or use a small pair of scissors to clip them off. Or you can let plants reach full size, then harvest by cutting off the entire plant at ground level.

Heading lettuces like butterhead, iceberg, and romaine are ready to pick when the heads are firm and full sized. But if hot weather is on the way and you are concerned that plants will bolt, it's best to harvest them even if they haven't yet headed up completely.

Question of the Month: Growing Mesclun

Q: What is mesclun and how do I grow it?

A: Mesclun, which means "mixture" in French, is simply as assortment of leafy salad greens that are harvested at a young stage. While different kinds of lettuces are typically included in a mesclun mix, other greens are included as well, such as arugula, beets, chard, kale, mustard, and cress. Mixes containing a variety of different types of seeds are available, or you can make up your own custom mix from individual kinds of seeds if you choose.

Grow mesclun similar to how you'd grow lettuce in a wide row, planting in fertile soil that has been amended with compost or other organic matter. You'll be harvesting mesclun when the plants are small, so you can sow thickly and don't need to worry about thinning. Simply cut off the plants just above the soil surface. You can often get one or two more harvests from the same plants as they regrow.

Like lettuce, mesclun does best in cooler weather, making it great for quick crops in fall and spring. Try growing in a cold frame or under floating row covers to extend the harvest season as long as possible.

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