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Gardening with Jack: Lettuce and Greens

Gardeners rarely count the cost to figure out how much they are saving by growing instead of buying but when it comes to salad makings the economics are obvious. Lettuce and greens are simple to raise and by growing them yourself they are always fresh.

If your lettuce of choice is Iceberg then you are out of luck. Iceberg lettuce cannot be grown to California standards in our climate but other popular lettuces such as Bibb (the dark green leaves used to line potato salad bowls), Romaine (essential for Caesar salad), and Loose-Leaf (the perfect fast growing cut-and-come-again lettuce). There are dozens of Loose-Leaf varieties, the leading one being Simpson Black-Seeded. Some are Loose-Leaf lettuces are shaped like oak leaves and some are red or bronze. You can make some really attractive salads from these fast growers and heavy producers.

No garden? No problem. Drill holes in a rectangular plastic bin of the right dimensions, fill it with potting mix and place it in the sun. Plant your seeds. Fertilize the seedlings with Osmocote. Water regularly. Eat daily.

If you have garden space then grow your lettuce in blocks rather than rows. Space your seeds according to the lettuce variety you use. Romaine will need eight inches between plants while Loose-Leaf only needs four inches.

Lettuces have compact roots and benefit from rich soil that has been amended with compost. Lacking compost, mix peat moss into your soil and add a little 6-6-6 fertilizer worked into the soil around the plant. Lettuces can be started in a seed bed and transplanted but do better when planted directly into the soil a mere quarter-inch deep and kept moist.

The more you pick your lettuce leaves the faster they will produce new ones. Romaine lettuce should be left whole until full, then cut. New leaves will be produced but it is better to have new plants available grown from seed on a monthly basis.

Greens have become very popular salad additions and can also be cooked for a change of pace. Spinach takes much longer than lettuce to become established but is worth the wait. Arugula is a spicy green that grows quickly and needs to be harvested while young as large leaves toughen. Mizuna is a Japanese mustard plant that bears lacy leaves and has a delightful flavour. Endive comes in both broad leaf and frisee forms. It is highly productive and plants need to be spaced 12 inches apart. Cover a couple of plants with a cardboard box and blanch them for a month to obtain white leaves of exquisite flavour.

Do not ignore Malabar spinach. This vinous plant with large round leaves provides salad making when the leaves are young and cooking spinach when mature. Malabar spinach can be grown outside of the regular garden in a location where it can sprawl or be supported.

If you pick chard and beet greens early they can be added to salads. Also very tasty are Chinese cabbage leaves and the tender leaves of young kale.

While you are buying your salad seeds I recommend you invest in a package of snail and slug treatment. Snails love salads too and they can rasp away a good amount in very short order. If you insist on being organic you can spread diatomaceous earth around your salad makings, available from Pinewood Nursery of course.

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