Newest Review: ... a few types of lettuce that can be grown over winter, like the aptly named "Winter Crop" and "Lambs' Lettuce", but I... more
Lovely leafy lettuce
Member Name: Stewwydablue
Advantages: Very easy to grow
Disadvantages: So many varieties to chose from!
It's almost that time of year when garden centres run out of compost, council maintained roundabouts are full of primulas and marigolds and allotment holders fight for parking spaces closest to their plots. I don't bother with any of that, I make my own compost, am too busy concentrating on the traffic at roundabouts and grow my vegetables in my back yard and not on an allotment. One of the easiest things to grow is lettuce, and it comes in so many varieties it's hard to get bored of. It also goes well with all sorts of foods, it's not just for giving bulk and texture to salads.
Lettuce is found world wide in temperate regions, and does particularly well in the UK. The reason it does so well over here is probably because lettuce loves lots of rain and damp conditions, but hates bright hot sunshine which makes it "bolt" and go to seed. The leaves aren't as nice to eat once it has bolted. The name lettuce is thought to derive from the latin word for milk, lac, as most lettuces have a milky looking sap.
GROWING YOUR OWN
I start sowing mine indoors from February, and outdoors from the end of March. To sow indoors, I thinly scatter the seeds onto a tray of moist compost, then cover with cling film and keep on my kitchen windowsill. If the compost looks like it's drying out then I'll lift the cling film from time to time and add a drop of water. Then when the end of March comes I plant the seedlings outside about five inches apart, but give them cover from frost if any are predicted in the form of bubble wrap and scrunched up newspaper.
To sow the seeds outside, prepare the soil first by raking it until it is of a very fine consistency, and water well before adding any seeds. Using your finger, scrape a shallow line out and pop the seeds into this depression, then cover with about half a centimetre of soil. As they start to grow, keep them nice and moist. In about six weeks time from sowing you should be able to start picking leaves off to eat. It's a very quick grower.
Most seed packs have hundreds of lettuce seeds in them, you really do get more than you'll need. To spread mine out for as long as possible I sow them about two weeks apart so that there is a continual supply of harvestable lettuce from about May to September. There are a few types of lettuce that can be grown over winter, like the aptly named "Winter Crop" and "Lambs' Lettuce", but I've never tried these so can't comment from personal experience. Lettuces do well in a soil that's high in nitrogen; the more nitrogen you have the more leafy growth you'll get.
You can get seed packets for as little as 25p from Lidl - they currently have a few different types of lettuce on offer for two packs for 50p.
Slugs love lettuce, so there's two main ways of dealing with this. You can either scatter slug pellets all over your soil and look out for the slimey trails of death that these cause, or you can be a bit more wildlife friendly and make a beer trap - google beer trap if you're not sure. Broken egg shells and grit spread around the lettuces will also put them off.
To counter greenfly, I use a spray bottle with some soapy water in it. The soapiness prevents them from flying, so after a spray I get a damp cloth and gently wipe the leaves to remove them. It's not as much of a faff as it sounds, honestly!
I add lettuce as a side dish to all sorts of things - I visited Albania once and we were given a large plate of shredded lamb and a bowl of lettuce in a restaurant - nothing else! We "went native" and used the lettuce leaves as a wrap for the lamb, it was very nice, if a little unusual! Most people think of lettuce as the horrible watery shredded Iceberg type that falls out of the side of a McDonalds cheese burger and is limper than an estate agent's hand shake. If that's the only sort of lettuce you've ever had, then you have my commiserations. There's so much variety available in the form of taste, leaf shape, size of leaves etc. The types that do well for me include Tom Thumb, lollo rossa, and little gem.
Tom Thumbs are a type of lettuce known as "butterheads" - they form a big leafy ball similar in appearance to cabbages. Lollo Rossa are of the "loose leaf" or "cut and come again" variety - loosely growing leaves that can be cut five or six times and grow back. Little Gems are of the Cos variety of lettuces, these are larger leafed than the cut and come again varieties and are more substantial and thicker in texture. I also treat Cos lettuces as cut and come agains. Most Cos lettuces are quite resistant to bolting and going to seed, so you might find that by mid July when the summer is in full swing you are eating nothing but the Cos types.
After cutting the leaves from my garden, I always rinse them in a colander under a cold tap to knock off any greenflies or other creepy crawlies. I try not to use chemicals in my garden - here's a thought - most lettuce we buy from supermarkets has had seven different applications of pesticides in its short life. Do I really want to eat all that accumulated insecticide? A big fat no is the answer to that, and I certainly don't want my children eating it.
Being high in folic acid and vitamin A, lettuce is a healthy food that goes well with all sorts of things. I recommend you to try "lettuce wraps" - get some big leaves, fill them with whatever you like and think of them as like a taco. Also, as they're really quick and easy to grow and don't need much space, try some planting some this spring and see how you do.
Summary: Very easy and quick to grow tasty veg