For many people the vegetable growing season really gets under way in October when cool weather crops like lettuce and greens come into their own. And what a selection we have these days. Some seed catalogues carry more varieties of lettuce and greens than they do tomatoes.
The most popular lettuce in food stores is Iceberg but that is a cool climate plant that does not do well in our warm conditions. Varieties such as Igloo and Green Ice give a degree of crispness but Abaco gardeners will get better returns from loose-leaf lettuces such as Black-Seeded Simpson, and the richly-flavoured deep green leaves of Bibb and Butterhead. Romaine can be grown but is best used early. If allowed to reach full size the leaves tend to toughen.
Greens picked young can be added to salads with great effect. My favourite is endive frisee that – once established – becomes a cut and come again salad source. There is also spinach, Japanese mizuna, epazote, plus the young leaves of bok choi, chard, beets and kale. There is a mixture of lettuce and greens sold in a single package called mesclun that allows you to have a wide salad choice without buying too many packages of seeds.
Start your lettuce and greens seeds in plastic seed trays, one seed to a compartment, and use good quality potting mix. Lettuce plants are fast growers and benefit from a weekly spray of Miracle-Gro liquid fertilizer. Once the plants are well rooted they can be transplanted to the garden or into heavy plastic bins that have good drainage. Grow your lettuce in blocks 4” apart rather than rows. Lettuces have compact root systems and must be watered every day that it does not rain.
Loose-leaf lettuces are great because the leaves can be picked as required to be added to a sandwich or salad bowl. Just about all lettuces that produce heads can be cropped and the foliage will grow back. Make sure to cut your whole lettuces fairly high and leave about an inch of stalks to encourage new growth.
Even though your lettuces will be highly productive it is still a wise move to sow more seeds – as many as required – every month. Greens will usually last a whole growing season without needing to be re-sown.
The big problem with growing lettuce is the fact that snails and slugs are also salad lovers. You will have to inspect your plantings sites early every morning to keep them at bay. Snail and slug bait is very effective but should be used with caution, perhaps as a ring around your whole planting area. Although bait kills predators it also attracts them. Birds can also be poisoned. Diatomaceous earth is another effective way of protecting your salad makings. Sprinkle it around your plants and to snails and slugs it will be like you trying to walk barefoot over a mess of jackstones. It will not kill but it will certainly deter.
If you are a serious salad lover you will no doubt disdain bottled salad dressings and make your own fresh vinaigrette. Whatever recipe you use, try adding papaya seeds. Allow the seeds to dry and then crack them with a rolling pin and use instead of freshly ground black pepper. Not only will you add an intriguing light-peppery flavour, you will add an aid to digestion.
If you reach the happy stage where you have too many lettuce and greens at one time remember they can be lightly sautéed in olive oil and used as a vegetable side.