Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Middle South
March, 2011
Regional Report

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Winter containers on the front stoop will get an infusion of spring with a pot crop of colorful lettuce.

Container-Grown Lettuce is a Snap

Just now, in the handful of weeks I call "betwixt and between," I like to get my hands dirty and stoke my enthusiasm for spring with a light-hearted project that's bound to be successful, no matter what curve ball Mother Nature might throw. The choices are many, but nothing satisfies my yearning or tantalizes my tastebuds quite as well as a crop of container-grown lettuce.

Nurturing a pot or two of lettuce is not only fun, it's also inexpensive, easy, and offers a quick return. Even if you haven't grown these crisp greens in the past, I promise this project is a no-brainer.

Just gather a few supplies, including a shallow bowl-like container, 12 or more inches wide and roughly half as deep. Then, choose a bag of premium potting soil and a packet of loose-leaf lettuce seeds.

Instructions are simple too. First, cover the drainage hole of the container. I usually make do with a used coffee filter, but a couple layers of newspaper or paper towel work equally well. Fill the container nearly full of potting mix, just an inch or so shy of the container's rim. Then, sprinkle the lettuce seeds sparingly across the soil's surface and cover them with an additional quarter inch of mix. Finally, place the bowl in a sunny location; water and wait.

Of course, the bigger the pot, the more plants you can grow. Seven or eight are about right for a 12-inch container, while a dozen will fill an 18-inch bowl. You'll need to thin plants accordingly as the lettuce begins to sprout, until you have the right amount and they are spaced evenly around the container.

As a cool-season crop, all types of lettuce grow best when soil is kept consistently moist and temperatures range between 45 and 75 degrees F. Plan to move the container to the garage or another protected location if the weather turns especially bitter. It's also a good idea to protect small plants from harsh winds, as they'll dry out quickly in blustery conditions.

In truth, you can be flexible with some of these directions. Whatever you do, don't skimp on the quality of your potting soil, however. Look for a premium product made specifically for containers and choose one that offers a balanced pH and includes nutrients for several months of growth.

Also take care to choose a loose-leaf selection of lettuce, as they are easier to grow in containers than the cos, butterhead, or crisphead types. In general, they also germinate more quickly and require fewer days until harvest. For example, most mesclun mixes will sprout in about five days and be ready to cut just four weeks later.

When the lettuce plants are five inches tall, use scissors to shear off the leaves an inch above the soil level. If you're careful to keep plants watered and lightly fertilized, they'll regrow for several more cuttings.

To ensure a ready supply of crisp greens, plant a lettuce bowl every week until seeds can be sown directly in the garden. To extend the growing season into hot weather, move the containers to a location that provides morning sun and afternoon shade.

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