It’s time to grow lettuce. It has been since September, actually. The thing about lettuce and other similar greens is that they need to be planted in succession. One planting is never enough! If you plant one crop and then follow it with another crop then you always have lettuce in the prime picking stage (succession planting). The weather may have turned cool, but the soil temperatures are plenty warm enough to cause Lettuce seed to germinate.
Now, you may be thinking, “Why bother?”
There are some nasty rumors going around about lettuce. I hear that it is really hard to grow with lots of insect problems. It has also been said that lettuce grown in Texas tastes bitter because of the heat. Lies, all of them.
The misinformation comes from the fact that the instructions on the back of seed packets and those great little farming magazines are written for folks living in the areas of the country that actually have four seasons and one growing season. Now do not misunderstand me, I love my gardening magazines, but the time lines do not line up. Well, welcome to Texas Gardening. There is a rhythm to gardening in Texas that is as unique as our Texas spirit. Once you learn the rhythm you will be amazed at what you can grow.
However, for now we will focus on lettuce and its cousins. It perturbs me to no end to have to purchase greens of any kind in the grocery store. Homegrown greens are so easy and tasty! Also, it is so much easier to have a bed of lettuce and just go pick you some whenever you want, than to have to go to the store when you want a salad. If you are like me, lots of times what’s for dinner is not something planned very far in advance. So, having items growing in the garden to have on hand is just the ticket.
One of the perks about lettuce and all the other greens, such as arugula, chard, spinach, etc. is that they can by eaten at all stages. Baby greens make for a scrumptious salad or sandwich. Many people, like my children, do not like mature spinach but love baby spinach. So, while the plants are growing you can pick the outer leaves and enjoy the garden abundance for many weeks. The greens( the term greens refers to all types of lettuce, herbs, kale, greens, spinach etc.) do not take a lot of space. One 5X12 foot bed of greens will keep a family of 6 in fresh greens. If there is only one or two of you, then a container that can hold 3-4 mature plants at a time is sufficient.
Now to dispel the lies.
First, that lettuce is hard to grow. Not so, you just have to know when to plant it. If you read many of the labels on lettuce sold in Texas, the labels say to plant after all danger of frost has passed. The problem with this is that if you wait that long in Texas you can have as little as 2 weeks until the temps are consistently in the mid- 80′s. The proper planting times in Texas are February- April and September- December. Lettuce is a cool season crop. When most areas of the country are having dead of winter, we are having our cool season. When we have had a mild winter, I harvest greens from September until June. That is only 2 months of store-bought greens in a year. That makes my heart happy!
The second lie is that lettuce has many insect problems. Now there are certain worms- Cabbage Loppers for example- that do like lettuce. However, these are easily dispatched with Bt. Bt- (Bacillus thuringiensis) is a naturally occurring bacterial disease that only attacks caterpillars. Bt is organic and you can eat the produce with no worries that synthetic pesticides bring. There are other insects that can be a problem at times, but I have found in my gardens that Bt is all I need to keep things in balance. Also, there are other methods of insect control, but again the Bt is simple, easy and effective so that is what I use. You can find it at most hardware and garden supply stores.
Lastly, lettuce grown in Texas tastes bitter- hogwash. Again, you just need to know when to plant and what varieties to plant. The types that are considered “slow to bolt” are the best for planting in the spring. Bolting refers to sending up a conical shaft with blooms that will produce seeds. Warm weather signifies to the lettuce that it is time to make seeds. So, those lettuces that are slow to bolt will be the most tolerant of warm weather. While you are looking in seed catalogs for heirloom selections (heirloom refers to varieties that will reproduce consistently if the seeds are saved) look for ones that were developed in Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas- of course- or Israel. These areas have climates similar to ours and those varieties will usually do well here for the summer planting. Look for varieties labeled “Cool season” or “cold tolerant” on the lettuces, these will be the one for planting in the fall. When it comes to the spinach, swiss chard, and kale- these are not even stopped by a freeze so they will grow all winter.
Some of my favorite varieties are:
For Fall Planting: Black Seeded Simpson, Drunken Woman, Tom Thumb, Oakleaf
For Spring Planting: Oakleaf, Jericho- awesome, Tom Thumb
Spinach- Longstanding Bloomsdale is great year round.
Most of your annual herbs like dill, Salad Burnett, chives are best planted on the same schedule as lettuce.
I like to sow the seeds in wide beds. I thin the seedlings and use them in salads as baby greens. Keep the lettuce or greens watered one inch once per week and a little shade is very helpful for extending the growing season in the summer. The seeds usually germinate and emerge in 7-10 days.
So there you have it- the truth about lettuce. Now what are you waiting for? September is coming to a close and October is upon us, I can just taste the homegrown lettuce now.