Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Coastal and Tropical South
October, 2010
Regional Report

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Grow a salad bowl for clean, quick greens to pick everyday.

Potted lettuce

The advantages of planting lettuce and other salad makings in containers can be summed up in one word: Better!

Why pots
It is true that gardeners in our regions can grow lettuce in garden beds. But if you have ever tried to harvest oakleaf and mesclun leaves after a thunderstorm, you've seen the mess it can be. Dirty, watersoaked, tasteless leaves do not make an appetizing salad. In the opposite kind of winter weather, when rain is scarce, these delicate greens can dry up and blow away or taste bitter. Instead, give yourself control by growing lettuces in wide shallow pots on your doorstep, balcony or deck.

Whether of plastic or clay, choose a pot that is 12 inches across and 5 inches deep for 4 individual lettuce plants or 6 clusters of mesclun leaves for cutting. When you pot them up, space each clump or cluster equally around the edge, but plant an inch inside the edge of the pot. It is better for the plants to grow upright, even if slightly close together, than to spill over the edge.

Mix up a well-drained, fertile potting soil and keep it moist. Water before the plants have any chance to wilt, but do not flood the pot excessively. Add soluble fertilizer mixed at half strength once a week. Keep the lettuce pot in at least 5 hours of morning sun, or more if the sun is dappled throughout the day. Depending on your taste and the size of your salad pot, you can add parsley and chives or even radishes to complement the lettuce. Their maintenance is essentially the same, except that the herbs need less fertilizer once they are established.

Good lettuce choices
Traditional solid head lettuce such as Iceberg often disappoints in our climate. Semi-heading lettuce such as butterhead (Bibb and Buttercrunch) and Romaine (or cos) are fine along the Southern Coasts and parts of the Tropic Zone. Leaf lettuce, including mesclun mixes, grow well across our regions. Favorite varieties of leaf lettuce include Oakleaf and Red Sails, a red leaf that is quite heat tolerant. Black Seeded Simpson and Deer Tongue are other good performers that may be included in mescluns. The difference between named varieties of lettuce and the mesclun mixes is simply that the latter includes the former along with spicy greens such as cress, endive, and kale. Mesclun is intended to be grown in close order, usually 3 inch squares, then harvested when the leaves are four inches tall. Use scissors to harvest individual leaves, please, to prevent tearing and encourage new growth.

Protecting lettuce
Ideas abound for covers to exclude insects, protect tender leaves from freezing temperatures and encourage vigorous growth in lettuce. My own prototype is simple to make. Gather the following: 1/2" PVC water pipe materials:
* 4 pieces 18 inches long AND 6 pieces 6inches long
* 4 T fittings AND 2 X fittings
OR If adding ends to the cloche AND to add more sections:
* 6 X fittings AND 4 elbow fittings
* 3 flexible hoops per cloche, such as 1/4 inch bendable PVC
You'll also need:
* scissors, tape and/or PVC glue
* 1/4" waterproof weather stripping
* cover materials: plastic, screen, row cover, shade cloth
This cloche will cover an area 3 feet long and 2 feet wide (with ends) to shelter plants up to 2 feet tall. Fit the pipes into the sleeves to form the base of the cloche, then add the flexible pipes to create hoops. Wrap the hoops with weather stripping before inserting into the fittings to make them snug. Drape plastic, screen or row cover material over the entire structure and tuck it under the base structure.

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