It can be hard to get excited about a salad. Especially in winter, when laziness prevails and a “salad” consists of a handful of mixed organic greens narrowly rescued from slow suffocation inside a plastic box. It’s okay. Even though we can grow lettuce all winter long doesn’t mean we must. After all, it was wet and cold out there. But now it’s spring! And, well, slightly less cold. Lettuce loves cool, damp weather, making it the star of the spring garden (and perhaps Vancouver’s unofficial vegetable mascot?).
There are literally hundreds of varieties of lettuces available to grow, each infinitely more interesting than iceberg. One peak inside a seed catalogue and you’ll feel cheated by the supermarket. With names like Speckled Troutback, Devil’s Tongue, Blush Butter, and Drunken Woman, you may be tempted to plant several just so you can serve up a story alongside your salad.
Lettuces are divided into four main types: looseleaf, butterhead (bibb), crisphead, and romaine (cos). Being the only type that doesn’t form a true head, looseleaf lettuces are a great option for those of us with limited space; you can harvest the outer leaves as needed, or snip off the entire plant just above the ground for what’s called a cut-and-come-again crop. The plant will regrow, and you can repeat the process throughout the season.
Plant lettuce from April through August, sowing seeds every three weeks to ensure a continuous supply. My “salad garden,” nine square feet in part shade, supplies enough fresh lettuce, arugula, and other greens to keep my family of three in salad until mid-autumn. It’s important to provide fertile soil that’s rich in organic matter (compost, worm castings, or manure can amp up your soil if it’s lacking) and regular, even moisture. Inconsistent watering causes lettuce to become bitter. Container gardeners should skip the organic matter, instead choosing a high-quality container soil amended with a complete organic fertilizer. Both container and in-ground gardeners can boost growth by watering biweekly with a nitrogen-rich fertilizer such as liquid fish emulsion.
When summer hits, lettuce tends to freak, sending up an elongated flowering stalk and acquiring a bitter taste. In essence, the plant is thinking, “time’s up! Better make some babies”. This habit – known as bolting – can be delayed by providing shade and plenty of water. Ultimately, however, it’s better to plan ahead and have new plants ready to replace the old. Because lettuce seeds don’t easily germinate in hot weather, it is often preferable to buy seedlings (or start your own in a cool place indoors) during the hottest weeks of summer.
Some of my favourite lettuces include pretty and prolific Red Sails, a red-tinged looseleaf; heirloom Amish Deer Tongue, a quick-to-mature looseleaf; Esmeralda, a melt-in-the-mouth butterhead; Continuity, a stunning bronzy-red heirloom butterhead; and container-friendly Little Gem, a miniature romaine.