It’s official, the world’s gone mad. My Proof? An article, this week, in one our major daily newspapers warning us against eating lettuces. Yes, you heard me, lettuces! Apparently, they’re environmentally unsound. For the amount of water and nutrients they require to grow, they deliver a disproportionately low level of calories. Never mind that we might actually enjoy a leafy salad! Well, I for one, am willing to give up a number of pleasures for the planet, from plastic supermarket bags to driving to the shop, but I flatly refuse to stop growing or eating lettuces. And to show I mean what I say, here’s how to grow the best ever lettuces in your garden.
To obtain the best seedling lettuces, sow them directly into the garden (rather than into a seed tray or punnet). Young lettuces don’t like a check in growth, and when you raise seed in a tray or punnet, you always risk the seedlings drying out or running short of nutrients. Sow the seed in a row, thinning the seedlings to around 30cm apart when they are between 10-15 cm high (transplant the thinnings to another part of the garden). Alternatively, sow seed in a patch, teasing out seedlings as required for transplanting.
Rapid, unchecked growth produces sweet, crunchy lettuces. Anything less and you’ll have bitter, milky leaves to contend with. Get you garden in shape for lettuces by digging in plenty of well rotted animal manure and a significant amount of compost (about three buckets per square metre). I like to incorporate well rotted straw or baylage (not hay which is full of grass and weed seeds). This kind of material really soaks up and locks in the moisture. Add a sprinkling of lime and dig it in until the ground is finely broken up. Water well before sowing or transplanting.
Your lettuce seedlings don’t like stress. In very warm conditions, shade them during the hottest part of the day with sticks of bracken poked into the ground, or shade cloth thrown over sticks. In cold weather, pop a cloche on promptly (and don’t forget to remove it once the heat arrives or you’ll cook the plants). Once lettuces are well established, they should be able to look after themselves, although late-season hail showers will pit the leaves if the lettuces aren’t covered. Keep the ground moist (it’s better to water at night so the ground has time to absorb the moisture before the sun dries it up).
Lettuce are shallow rooted. Avoid damaging roots through weeding by using a thick organic mulch around young plants (always lay slug or snail bait under and on top of the mulch). Alternatively, plant the lettuces more closely together so they self-mulch the ground as they grow. As you thin some of the lettuces for use, the others will grow larger to fill in the gaps.
Open habit lettuce such as oak leaf and the many frilly varieties are ideal for picking a few leaves at a time. Hearting lettuce such as the traditional ice-berg and butter crunch varieties should be harvested as soon as the hearts are firm (not hard). Leave them any later and they’ll begin to rot (often from the inside so you don’t at first notice). Cos lettuce are an in-between variety which holds well so they can sit in the ground for some time after maturing without going tough.
In the kitchen
It’s always better to tear lettuce rather than cutt it although traditional Greek salads require you to slice the leaves (which are usually from cos lettuces). When cutting, use a plastic rather than a metal knife so the leaves are less likely to turn brown. Although lettuces are traditionally used for salads, have fun this season by using lettuce in smoothies, summer soups and stir fries.
As for the spoilers who advise us to steer clear of lettuces – a dose of scurvy upon the lot of them!