PHOTOS:  GERRIE VAN TOLEDO/VICTORIA COUNTY MASTER GARDENER
Master Gardener, Gerrie Van Toledo's, display of homegrown loose-leaf lettuce in containers is shown with her harvested red tomatoes, peppers, and a special variety of cucumber from her native Netherlands.
GROW YOUR OWN
SALAD
Now is the time to
start your lettuce garden



October 30, 2008


By Gerrie Van Toledo,
Victoria County Master Gardener

Edited by Charla Borchers Leon,
Victoria County Master Gardener
Crisp, freshly-washed lettuce leaves in various textures and colors make an attractive salad.  Try the varieties of red or cinnamon-colored romaine, added to the apple-green butterhead, along with the more traditional crisphead.
Fall is the ideal time to start growing lettuce and other leafy greens. Lettuce has been cultivated for more than 2,000 years, and today there are numerous varieties among the bibb, crisphead (perhaps more difficult to grow for home gardeners here), leaf (usually considered easiest to grow) and romaine types. There are so many different types of lettuce, there will always be several that will tickle your specific taste buds.

FOUR LETTUCE GROUPS

Lettuce (the botanical name is Lactuca sativa) can be divided into four main groups: Loose-leaf lettuce, Romaine lettuce, butterhead also called Boston lettuce or bibb and crisphead lettuce also called Iceberg lettuce.

Loose-leaf lettuce is best for our area, because it withstands heat better than other types. It forms a cluster of loose leaves that can be picked according to your needs. Good selections are black-seeded Simpson (heirloom variety), green ice and oak leaf. These have green leaves. The salad bowl has deeply cut green leaves. Prize leaf, lollo rosso, red oak leaf and ruby all have red-tinged leaves.

Romaine lettuce withstands heat reasonably well. It has an erect, cylindrical head of smooth leaves. The outer leaves are green and inner ones yellowish. Try little Caesar, Olga, ez-serve or Parris island. Rosalita is a romaine with deep red leaves.

Butterhead has a loose head, with green, smooth outer leaves and yellow inner leaves. Good choices include four seasons, buttercrunch and Tom thumb (heirloom variety).

Crisphead is the most difficult for home gardeners to produce. Heads form best with monthly average temperatures of 55-60 degrees. Best selections include Great Lakes, Nevada and summertime. Rosy is a small crisphead with reddish burgundy leaves.

GROWING CONDITIONS

Lettuce needs moist, loose soil that is well-drained, and lettuce seeds need light to germinate. Sow the seeds on top of the soil and rake them in very lightly. Then pat the soil down lightly so the seeds make good contact with the soil. Keep the ground moist (water twice-a-day) until the small plants show up. Then you can slowly diminish the watering frequency, but keep the soil moist. Lettuce needs frequent, but light fertilization.

For a good harvest, plants need to get at least six hours of sun. Good air circulation is a plus, as this helps deter disease and insects. And it will be much easier if your salad patch is within reach of the garden hose or a sprinkler. Water is especially crucial for young plants when the temperature is still fairly high. I put out a sprinkler on a timer, and set it to a 1/2 to 1 hour of watering every 12 hours.

If you sow seeds every 14 days you will have a continuous harvest. In a mild winter, you may get lucky and have lettuce until the summer heat kicks in. Actually, some types of lettuce are frost resistant to about 32 degrees, and some types are quite heat resistant. Once it gets too hot, lettuce will start "bolting", that is, shooting up fast and starting to produce seeds. At that point the leaves will turn bitter, and it is too late to harvest. Pull the whole plant out and use it before that happens.

HARVESTING LETTUCE

There are several opportunities to harvest your lettuce. When you thin your lettuce so there is space for each plant to grow, you can use the small lettuce leaves for your salads. With loose-leaf and romaine lettuce, pick the outer leaves as they reach the right size. The minute you see bloom stalks coming up, pull up the whole plant and use the leaves. Crisphead and butterhead always need to be harvested as a whole.

LETTUCE AS DECORATION

Lettuce can be grown very well in pots. So you don't need a whole vegetable garden to grow lettuce. If you don't have the energy or room to create an in-ground garden, a five-gallon container of loose-leaf lettuce goes a long way, since you harvest only the leaves.

Also, you can decorate your ornamental and flower garden with pretty-looking lettuce as well. A leaf lettuce like prizeleaf has green leaves with maroon edges. Oak leaf is a heat-resistant, sweetly-flavored loose-leaf that gets medium-green, deeply-lobed leaves. There's a red oak leaf, too. Salad bowl has red leaves that can be picked when needed. All of these are very decorative. Give it a try. You will have the best of both worlds - a pretty garden or flowerpot and a tasty lettuce.

SPECIAL ADDITIONS TO YOUR SALAD

Besides lettuce, this is also a good time to grow other greens for the salad bowl. The peppery, somewhat bitter-tasting arugula, sometimes called rocket, is easy to grow. The baby leaves are good in salads; the mature leaves can be cooked with other greens. Or perk up your salad with savory endives, like cichorium endive, the strong-tasting radicchio and Swiss chard. The young leaves go in the salad and the more mature ones can be cooked.

Rose flower petals can be added to your salad, but do remove the bitter heel at the base. Chive flowers - allium scorodoprasum - will also add color to your salad.

SEED BLENDS

Too many choices? Not sure what to do? Do what I sometimes do, buy the blends that seed catalogs offer. I had very good results last spring with the heat wave blend from Burpee. One of my favorites is green ice. It produced tasty, green leaves long into the very warm spring weather.

For my fall garden this year, I will grow prizeleaf, Simpson elite, royal oak leaf and buttercrunch. Bon appetit!
Mixed greens with red tomatoes and other interesting salad ingredients provide a healthy and colorful table setting.
Salad with Herbs and Toasted Sunflower and Pumpkin Seeds
3 Tbsp. sunflower seeds
3 Tbsp. pumpkin seeds
3 cups mixed lettuce leaves
2 cups of salad herbs, like coriander and cilantro leaves, parsley, basil and arugula/rocket
Dressing
4 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard
Salt and black pepper


Toast the sunflower and pumpkin seeds in a dry frying pan over a medium heat for two minutes or until golden, tossing frequently to prevent burning. Let cool slightly.

Put lettuce and herbs in bowl and mix lightly. Use your hands to toss the salad so delicate leaves are not bruised. Sprinkle with seeds.

Put all dressing ingredients in a bowl and mix together.

Pour dressing over the salad carefully.

Serve.

Arugula (Rocket) and Romaine Salad with Herbs
2 cups arugula (rocket) leaves
2 cups romaine lettuce (any variety)
2 Tbsp coarsely chopped flat leaf fresh parsley
2-3 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh dill
5 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1-2 Tbsp. lemon juice
Salt


Balance the peppery and bitter taste of the arugula and the sweetness of the romaine to your own taste. The only way to do this is to try it out.

Young rocket leaves can be put in whole; older ones should be trimmed of thick stalks and then sliced coarsely.

Slice the romaine lettuce into thin ribbons and place these in a bowl. Add the rocket and the chopped fresh parsley and dill.

Make the dressing by whisking the extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice with salt to taste in a bowl until mixture emulsifies and thickens. Just before serving, pour over the salad and toss lightly.
The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or vcmga@vicad.com, or comment on this column at www.VictoriaAdvocate.com.