Growing Lettuce!

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.

Swiss Chard- A Power-Packed Beauty In The Garden

swiss chard from the garden

Just two seasons ago I had know idea what to do with Swiss Chard.  But, I bought some because it is so beautiful- and it is pretty enough to be grown for gorgeous foliage all on its own.  But it would be just silly to not harvest and eat those beautiful leaves.

One cup of chopped Swiss chard has just 35 calories and provides more than 300% of the daily value for vitamin K plus it is one of the best sources for magnesium.  Magnesium is an important trace mineral that is missing in most of our diets.  Most soils are depleted of this mineral which is why it is important to purchase organic Chard or grow it yourself.

Growing Chard is very easy.  Plant in spring or fall.  Harvest leaves individually and the plant will keep producing more.  Chard is one plant that can grow in partial shade.  Fertilize with organic fertilizers and compost tea so as to add the trace minerals to the soil thereby enabling the Chard to pick them up and make them available for you.  For more details on growing Chard, click here.

WebMd says this:

Swiss chard is a nutritional powerhouse — an excellent source of vitamins K, A, and C, as well as a good source of magnesium, potassium, iron, and dietary fiber.

 

Here is a little more about the great veggie-

Chard is an annual crop widely grown greens around Mediterranean region and is available at its best during summer season from June until November months.

Chard features distinctly large dark-green leaves with prominent petiole well-developed edible stalk. Generally, its leaves are harvested at various stages of maturity. While the whole plant with its tender young leaves can be harvested for salad preparation, individual large-size, mature leaves with slightly tough texture stem may be picked up for sautéing and cooking in dishes.

Swiss chard comes in variety of types based on their shiny, crunchy stalks and petiole:

 

Health benefits of Swiss chard

Regular inclusion of chard in the diet has been found to prevent osteoporosis, iron-deficiency anemia, and vitamin-A deficiency; and believed to protect from cardiovascular diseases and colon and prostate cancers.

So, now that you know why you should eat this little jewel you may wonder how-

Swiss Chard can be cooked the same way you would spinach- saute in butter, steam, roast, chop and add it to green salads.  The stalks can be chopped and added to soups and broth.

A dish that we love for breakfast, lunch or dinner  is listed below.

Swiss Chard, Mushroom, and bacon Saute with eggs.

1/2 pound of Swiss Chard- about 6 large leaves with stems

6-8 mushrooms of your choice (or more if you like)

1/4 lb of bacon, diced

1 small onion, finely diced

2 cloves of garlic, crushed or pressed

2- tbsp olive oil, if needed

4 eggs

Cut stems from Swiss Chard leaves and chop like you would celery.  Chop leaves and set aside

In large stainless steal or cast iron skillet, brown bacon over medium heat.  When bacon is just turning brown add onion, swiss chard stalks, and mushrooms.  Saute until the onion becomes clear.  If the pan is smoking, reduce heat and add olive oil.

Add the chopped Swiss chard and garlic, saute for 2 minutes or so- until wilted and tender.

Now, make four wells in the cooking mixture and break one egg into each well. If you need more oil, add olive oil.  Let cook for 1-2 minutes for sunny side up, place lid on pan and cook for another minute for “over easy” or leave lid on until the eggs are cooked through if so desired.

Serve and enjoy!  A nice piece of crusty bread goes very well.

swiss chard, mushrooms and eggs

One. Last. Time…

Old Timers around my part of the country refer to what is called “Good Friday Gardens”  because they never put out warm season crops such as tomatoes before Good Friday- the Friday before Easter Sunday.  Here is why- 9 times out of 10 we will get a freeze or at least very close to freezing the week or so before Easter.

As I write this the temperature is falling and we are looking at the mid-thirties overnight.  So long as we stay above freezing the vast majortiy of our plants will be just fine.  Quite a few won’t even care if we dip below freezing.  However; tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, Basil and other such warm season crops do mind very much if we get into the thirties at all.  So, we have been covering what is already planted and wrapping up those items that have already blossomed and are putting on fruit.

sierra in the garden covering squash

The squash plants were covered in plastic pots with plastic staked over the top so this confounded wind doesn’t blow them to kingdom come.

jonathan in the garden covering peach trees

Jonathan is working to stabilize the frame he and Tony built to protect the peach trees.

family covering peach trees

A farm requires a family to pull together.  Covering our crops and praying that the temps hold above freezing.  The white rectangle is covering the tomato patch.

sierra covering tomatoes

Sierra helped me put pots over all the 50 tomato plants and 20 Basil plants.  There are three times as many tomato plants to go out, but those are still safe inside the greenhouse.

tony and J covering peaches

My two favorite men.

peach tree covered

Here is our harvester peach tree all tucked in for the night.  The cold weather won’t kill the tree but we are concerned about damage to the young fruit growing on the little limbs.  We are just to close to the end of all this cold weather to leave it to chance.  We are determined to get a peach this year!

Once this was done, we all trooped inside for hot chocolate and a wonderful meal of sauteed Swiss Chard, mushrooms, bacon and eggs.

swiss chard, mushrooms and eggs

swiss chard from the garden

Swiss Chard is a beautiful crop and one we did not have to cover as it doesn’t mind the cold.

So, here we go just one last time.  Easter comes this Sunday and this winter will just be a memory.