Winter in Adelaide can provide perfect lettuce growing weather – plenty of rain, and some sunshine, but not the lettuce-leaves-burnt-to-a-crisp sunshine we get in mid to late Summer. Lettuces need plenty of water, being shallow-rooted, and the leaves themselves have a high water content. If they get too hot or dry, or unhappy for any reason, their flavour turns bitter or they bolt to seed. On the other hand, make sure you grow late Winter/early Spring lettuces somewhere sheltered from frosts so that your lettuce leaves don’t turn to mush! But it’s so easy to grow them at the moment with the regular showers we’ve had, that some seeds I tossed around under our Fig Tree a while ago have been providing me with a daily bowl of salad, and I haven’t bothered watering them at all.
Red Oak Leaf lettuce, with some rocket and other mixed salad greens
They’re Red Oak Leaf lettuces, one of my favourite varieties because they are so easy to grow, you can pick and eat them one leaf at a time instead of having to harvest the whole plant at once, and the snails and slugs don’t seem to like them much. Those slimy pests prefer the sweeter, milder green lettuces, so being a lazy grower I follow the path of least resistance and grow the stronger flavoured red varieties. These varieties also seem to be hardier when the weather warms up a bit, or if I forget to make sure they have enough water.
Red Oak Leaf is often the only lettuce I’ll even attempt to grow in Summer when I’m rationing out water like liquid gold. In Winter when there’s plenty of water about I also like to grow Green Mignonette, a small variety which doesn’t take up much space, so will grow happily when squashed in amongst other vegies or in a tub. It has a lovely sweet flavour so I have to be a bit vigilant about the snails. I’ve also had good success with a Brown Romaine lettuce, which looks beautiful in a salad, has a great sweet-nutty sort of flavour, and is slow to bolt in warmer weather.
Growing lettuces from seed
I get my organic lettuce seeds from Green Harvest: http://www.greenharvest.com.au They also sell packets of mixed variety lettuce seeds so you can try several varieties from one packet – an economical way of finding out what grows best at your place. Hearting varieties are usually meant to be harvested all at once when mature, while loose-leaf varieties can be eaten gradually over a longer periods of time by just eating the outer leaves. Another good source for seeds is Select Organic: http://www.selectorganic.com.au
Lettuces are easy to grow from seed. As long as you use a good seed-raising mix and make sure they stay moist, they’ll germinate quickly. Don’t sow them too deep, only about half a centimetre. I tend to just thinly scatter them onto compost, then scatter some seeds rasing mix over the top and water them in. Sometimes I’ll put a scrap of shadecloth over them to stop them drying out, to be removed once they germinate. I let them grow and compete with eachother for a little while until they’re about half a finger tall and then I thin out the small ones (and eat them in a salad) until I have some nice healthy looking lettuces about 20 to 30 cm apart. Sometimes with loose-leaf lettuces I get really lazy and forget to thin them out, and I just keep eating the outer leaves. They don’t grow very big that way, but they seem to last a long time. Whether you grow them in the ground or in a tub, the soil around their roots needs to be moist at all times, so that they grow quickly to full size without turning bitter. A thick layer of mulch around them helps a lot.
Harvesting lettuce seeds
If you want to harvest your own lettuce seeds for another round of planting, choose your best, healthiest looking lettuce and nurture it, making sure it has plenty of water and nutrients (if in doubt, add more compost!). Let it flower, keep molly-coddling it, and let the flowers turn into seeds.
It’ll take about two months for that yummiest-looking lettuce to produce yellow flowers that turn white and fluffy. You can then either:
1) cut off all the flowers near the bottom of the plant and put them somewhere to dry and then store the seeds, or …
2) my favourite method – leave them until they start spilling all over the garden and flying away with the breeze, then break off the big branch of flowers near the base and joyfully thrash it around the garden anywhere you think you might like lettuces! For more accurate and sensible ways of saving and storing seeds, see “The Seed Savers’ Handbook” by Michel & Jude Fanton. You can get it at: http://www.seedsavers.net
Eating lettuce and salads in Winter
You can give a Winter salad some really warm flavours. Try squeezing a clove of garlic into some olive oil and adding black pepper as a salad dressing. Or ginger, tamari and peanut oil with a little chilli….or how about a warm tahini, sunflower oil and sweet potato dressing. My daily Winter salads are the result of garden foraging and usually include torn lettuce and rocket leaves, shredded cabbage, nasturtium, beetroot, radish and baby kale leaves, florets of raw broccoli side shoots, a handful of parsley and winter basil, and maybe some grated daikon and beetroot. Sweetened with some organic carrot from the market and tossed with apple cider vinegar and a good olive oil and sprinkled with sunflower seeds, it’s always an easy, fresh-tasting treat and makes me feel great. Toss through some chick peas or cooked beans and you have a complete meal. The incredible variety of ingredients is just one of the great pleasures of growing your own food.
Making the most of a small space: a red curly leaf lettuce growing in Spring under the protection of a dwarf nectarine tree. It is about to be harvested, giving the interplantings of kale and silverbeet space to grow to full size.