We live in a salad conscious age. Gone are the days when salad was a wedge of iceberg lettuce smothered in Roka or Ranch dressing. Today’s salad lovers select from a vast range of greenery and either forego dressings or use discreet vinaigrettes. Their one demand is peak freshness and that can only be guaranteed by home growing.
Fortunately, lettuce is both easy and fast to grow. The seeds can be sown directly into the garden or the plants raised in flats and transplanted. Their root systems are dense but compact so watering regularly is of primary importance.
The main lettuce types are Bibb, Romaine, Loose-Leaf and Iceberg. Our climate is on the warm side for lettuce so Bibb and Butterhead (very similar), along with a wide variety of Loose-Leaf, do better than Romaine or Iceberg. Romaine leaves tend to coarsen as they grow while Iceberg leaves tend to be bitter in warm weather and do not form dense heads.
Loose-Leaf lettuces are particularly useful to the home gardener. Black-Seeded Simpson is wonderfully productive and tasty while other varieties come with red or bronze colouring and oak-like leaves. A salad made solely from a selection of Loose-Leaf lettuces can be colourful and multi-textured as well as taste good. An added advantage is that the leaves can be picked from the parent plants individually. Want just two or three leaves to liven up a sandwich? Just pick what you need.
It has become fashionable to make salads with a combination of greens and lettuce and this mixture is called mesclun. Greens tend to have a more pronounced flavour (as evidenced by arugula) and may include spinach, chicory, epazote, endive and mizuna. My particular favourite is endive frisee, which can stand alone. In addition to these you can hunt in the rest of the garden and pick and add the young leaves of kale, bok choi, chard, Malabar spinach, watercress, borage and basil, as well as pea shoots. Tired of the same old salads? Not if you grow your own.
Lettuce plants and most greens are compact so are good candidates for growing in containers; you don’t need a garden. Ideal for the purpose are rectangular plastic basins with drainage holes drilled in the base. Fill a basin with top quality potting mix and either sow or transplant your lettuce and greens about 4-inches apart and set your basin in the sun. In no time at all you will have a cut-and-come-again salad bar.
If you are growing your lettuces in the garden it makes sense to plant them in blocks rather than rows. Rows are wasteful. Sow your seeds or transplant your seedlings 4-inches apart in all directions, as many as you think your family will need on a regular basis.
Most lettuces and greens grow back once the head or leaf mass is cut away. You can help the rejuvenation by cutting high, leaving an inch or so of stalk growth. Avoid removing too much of any central stalk.
It is not only you who loves salads, snails and slugs love them too. Sprinkle snail bait around your growing area, especially when the new seedlings are emerging. If you are averse to using poisons in the garden, support a piece of plywood on four rocks about 2-inches in diameter in the sort of shaded area snails and slugs love to inhabit. Lift the plywood after about a week and you will find a colony of grateful snails. Dispose of them according to your beliefs.
If you ever have a superabundance of lettuces and greens – or you prepare a giant bowl of salad for company that does not turn up – try cooking. Regular folks like me would use bacon fat or schmaltz but purists should use olive oil. Render the leaves in a pan until reduced to about half volume and serve as a vegetable side to virtually any meal.