Posts Tagged ‘lettuce’

Homegrown Vegetables Hall of Fame II: Leaf Lettuce

June 1, 2009

Sometime between when I was a child and the present, the world at large made a leap from iceberg lettuce to romaine.  Back then, every family had a volleyball-like, pale green head of iceberg lettuce in the refrigerator crisper.  Nowadays, the only times I see iceberg lettuce is at the Taco Bell or in a wedge salad.
This shift is understandable–iceberg lettuce is devoid of nutrition and flavor.  Romaine is able to hold up to heavy dressings and gets great ratings as  “leafy green”, one of the foods most people don’t eat enough of.  However, this shift in lettuce preference skipped over my personal favorite–leaf lettuce.  It’s easier to grow than either iceburg lettuce and romaine, and offers a far greater variety in form than either.  I can see why it doesn’t work as well on a commercial level–each head is a lot smaller than either iceburg or romaine lettuce, and it probably doesn’t transport as well, but for the home gardener, it’s ideal.

Growing Lettuce

Lettuce is a cool-weather crop, and will flower and set seed when it gets too warm.  In Michigan, I can usually get lettuce from my full-sun garden until the end of June.  If I start it in a cold frame, I can put it in in March, and start getting some thinnings in April.  A 4 x 4 area provides a few salads every few days through May and June, depending on weather.   This year, I’ve got some transplants and some grown from seed in the same bed, and they’re pretty indistinguishable at this point–next year, I’ll probably direct-seed them all.

Mulching is beneficial on two fronts–it keeps the soil moist and keeps the soil from splashing on the plant.  Lettuce likes a damp soil, and will wilt in hot, dry weather.  A good coating of mulch keeps the water in the soil from evaporating.  Mulch also keeps the soil in place through sprinkling or rain, as the leaves can get sandy otherwise.  Mulch with caution, however:  slugs love to eat lettuce, and too much mulch will give them the cover they need to destroy your crop.

Lettuce works well when planted in combination with other plants.   I’ve interplanted it with carrots, as the long and narrow carrot roots do not interfere with lettuce’s more shallow roots.  I’ve planted it between rows of corn, with the corn protecting the lettuce from the summer sun and extending its season.  I’ve also planted lettuce in a spot where I intend to plant a hot-weather vegetable–tomatoes or peppers, for example–as the lettuce will get pulled out when the hot-weather plants need the space.  There is some overlap in growing seasons, but the peppers/tomatoes don’t really get growing until the lettuce is past its prime.

I’ve had mixed results growing a fall crop of lettuce.  Timing is crucial–if you get it in too soon, the hot weather causes it to “bolt”, get bitter, and go to seed.  Plant too late, and the seedlings never develop.  I haven’t got a foolproof technique yet–I try it every year, and some years I have better luck than others.

Eating Lettuce

The first time I have to buy lettuce from the store (usually around November) is the most disappointing trip of the year.  After several months of right-out-of-the-ground lettuce, even the freshest grocery store offerings look tough, wilted, and bruised.  Fresh, home-grown lettuce is truly a luxury.  There are recipes for lettuce slaw and lettuce soup, but I’ve never needed them–a frilly leaf or two on a sandwich and a big salad are the only ways I’ve used lettuce.  We always offer to bring a green salad to the early-summer, bring-a-dish-to-pass events, too.  A few green onions, a shredded carrot, and a hardboiled egg, all topped with chive blossoms or pansy flowers, make for a very impressive, I-grew-it-myself salad and seems to go over well with most audiences.

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Winter Greens, Part II: The Cold Frame

March 22, 2009

This entry is a follow-up to my article on sprouts several weeks ago.

I planned on being able to post digital pictures before I wrote this, but that’s not happening.  In addition to sprouting various seeds, some home-grown and others from the store, I add fresh local vegetables to my winter diet through the use of a cold-frame.  I have had less than spectacular results, and a few meteorological mishaps, but the idea is worth sharing.

In my last entry, I gave a plan for an insulated straw-bale cold frame.  This year, I didn’t get enough bales before winter, so I used an alternate design–a variation on a hoop house.  I picked up about 75 ‘ of concrete reinforcing mesh–sort of an industrial-strength chicken wire with 6″ holes–to make tomato cages and a compost bin.  With the 15 or so feet I had left over, I made two sections that arced into a half-circle shape, about as wide as one of the beds in my garden.  Each section was cut to leave 6″ lengths of wire sticking out on the ends, which I stuck into the ground to secure the frame.  This left me with a wire tunnel, about 5 feet long, 4 feet wide, and 3 feet tall.  I was able to get some greenhouse-grade plastic (leftovers from a local greenhouse) to cover my frame, and weighed down the edges with some fist-sized rocks.  This left me with a miniature version of the full-sized greenhouses you’d see at a commercial-scale nursery.

The cold frame collects and retains solar energy, resulting in, well, a “greenhouse effect” that keeps the plants within at a much warmer temperature than the outside air.  Though this would only add a week or two to the life of warm weather plants, like peppers or tomatoes, it can keep cool-weather plants alive through all but the coldest Michigan winters.

Fall and Spring Planting in a Cold Frame

I stuck with cool-season greens in the fall, such as leaf lettuce, bok choy, and spinach, planted in the early fall or transplanted a little later.  These go more or less dormant when the weather gets cold, but the cold frame keeps them in a harvestable state through most of winter.  There isn’t a lot of growth, so your stock dwindles as spring approaches, but it’s a great way to keep some fresh and local food on the table all winter.  With no disrespect to the other two winter-long green vegetables, it’s way more interesting than kale, and far more versatile than brussel sprouts.

In spring, the cold frame is more of a head-start than a long-term plan.  Around the time I’m planting pea seeds, I pull out the rest of the winter greens from the cold frame (there’s usually not much left, and what’s left is starting to toughen up and flower), and plant a new crop.  This year, it was spinach, bok choy, leaf lettuce, and very early carrots.  The additional heat and humidity from the enclosed cold frame will give them several weeks of extra growing time before the open-air garden is ready to be planted.  I’ve sited the cold frame in the place I’m putting this year’s peppers, which won’t be planted until early summer, so most of these plants will have a chance to mature before the peppers go in.  I’ve considered putting the peppers in a few weeks before the last frost, hoping that the cold frame would give them the shelter and warmth they would need, but I don’t think it’s worth the risk.  I’m not sure how cold it can get in a cold frame, particularly at night.

Cold Frame Problems

Weather rarely cooperates with cold frame construction.  I’ve had my plastic sheeting blown off completely, despite weighing down the edges and clipping the plastic to the frame.  I’ve also had the entire thing collapse under the weight of snow and ice, crushing the leafy plants underneath.  Also, since the plastic sheeting is impermeable to rain, it can get desert-dry inside of a cold frame when all the ground moisture is frozen.

Access to vegetables is another problem.  With rocks weighing down the edges, water sometimes pools and freezes, making it hard to lift the plastic sheeting and reach in to harvest.  The 6″ access holes are also an obstacle.  I’ve adopted a “mass harvest” mentality, getting a week’s worth of greens in one go, just to simplify things.

Once spring starts to warm up, it can get very hot inside a greenhouse.  Think of a car parked in the sun with the windows up–opening up the cold frame on those warm, sunny days is a necessary inconvenience.

Weeds that are growing in the space where you’ve set up your cold frame are also able to take advantage of the microclimate, so they often spread throughout the winter.  Finally, keeping a bed in production all year takes a lot out of the soil, so your cold-frame bed should be refreshed with compost or fertilizer more often than others.

Possible Improvements

I’ve considered a number of options that I haven’t followed through on yet.  The first–instead of using weights to hold down the plastic, I’ve seen cold frames with trenches dug along their edges, with the edge of the plastic sheet buried under a few inches of soil.  This would hold it down a lot better, but would make it much harder to get into the cold frame.

Another modification would be to put it in so that it straddled two beds, with a path down the center.  I’d have to crawl in from the end (the taller a cold frame is, the less efficient it is, as heat rises away from the plants), but I wouldn’t have to reach, and I’d be able to bury the edges as mentioned above.

I’ve saved up a bunch of dark-colored laundry soap jugs, which I intend to fill with water and use as heat collectors.  The dark colors will absorb solar heat through the day, then release it at night.  Each jug takes up valuable square footage in the cold frame, though.

I may use a few stakes next year to reinforce the wire framework–I’ve never had a collapse before, but this year’s heavy snowfall brought the whole cold frame down.  It’s an easy enough fix, and I could have saved a few plants.

So far, using a cold frame has been more art than science, but it has kept in in the garden throughout the winter, and kept me out of the produce section of the grocery store for several weeks beyond the end of my garden’s regular season.  I’ll be building another straw-bale frame next year, provided I can round up enough free straw bales, but I’ll build another wire-frame hoop house as well, just to see if I can do any better.

Winter Greens I: Sprouting

January 13, 2009

Although I’ve got some parsnips in the ground, some squash in the attic, and a few things in the freezer, I’m still looking for some fresh, local produce.  The best I’ve come up with so far is cold framing and sprouts.  I’ll cover cold framing as soon as I figure out how to get pictures off of my camera phone, so today it’s sprouts.

Finding Sprouts
Although I purchase alfalfa and mung bean seeds from the local health food store, I also sprout seeds that I’ve grown myself.  Most of the cabbage family, including broccoli, works well when sprouted.  I imagine lambs quarters seeds would be good sprouted, but I haven’t collected the seeds yet.  I’m also going to try purslane seeds.  I know that tomato and pepper seeds don’t yield edible sprouts, so it might be a general rule that fruiting vegetables don’t make good sprouts.  I’ve also just started sprouting sunflower seeds, which are sprouted in soil rather than in water.  I grow sunflowers in the summer, but I’ll sprout the sunflower seeds sold for birdfeeders when I run out.  The seeds sold for human consumption won’t work, as they are roasted and salted and won’t sprout.

It’s important to avoid using seeds purchased for planting, as they are treated with fungicides and other sorts of things that are best not ingested.  An additional precaution:  sunflowers are often used to clean up industrial waste sites, as the plants absorb a lot of heavy metals.  Use caution when finding “wild” sunflowers.

Harvesting Sprouts

Harvesting seeds varies depending on the plant.  It’s important that they are properly dried if you’re going to be storing them; to test them, I put seeds in a sealed jar overnight to see if any moisture forms inside the jar.  When they have air-dried, they can be stored.  For sunflower seeds, I keep whole, dried flower heads in the attic and rub off enough seeds to make a planting.

Preparing Sprouts

To sprout most seeds, I take a regular jar, put seeds in it to cover the bottom, and cover them with water to soak.  When they’ve soaked for a few hours, drain the water off.  After they’ve been soaked, rinse and drain them twice a day—I fill the jar with water once in the morning, then pour it off, then do the same before bed.  After two weeks or so, they will begin to sprout and will be ready to eat.  At this point, they can be put in the refrigerator for later use.

To grow sunflower seeds, I fill a tray of some kind (I’ve even used egg cartons) with potting soil and stick in seeds.  They can be packed in packed in pretty closely, as they won’t be growing very big.  Keep them watered and in a sunny/well lit place—windowsill, etc.—until they sprout.  When the seed coat has fallen off and both leaves are out, the sprouts are ready to be harvested.  Using scissors, just cut the sprouts off at the base and use as soon as possible.

Eating Sprouts

Any sprout serves well in the place of lettuce on a sandwich. Some have more flavor than others, but the taste is welcome in most combinations.  Sunflower sprouts are mild enough that they could serve as the base for a green salad, if you can grow enough at one time.  Sprouted mung beans are used in pad thai, and can be added to any stir fry in the last few moments of cooking.

The wide variety of seeds that can be sprouted offers something for every eater.  Sprouts are a delicious alternative to the pathetic lettuce shipped into my grocery store throughout the winter months, and are higher in nutrients if sprouted in the open, as opposed to the light-excluding traditional method.

Winter Foraging, and Preparing for Spring Gardens

February 9, 2008

Back in the day when human beings depended on foraging for survival, there was not, I suspect, a lot of people spending winters in the Michigan area. I started this weblog as motivation to try new local and wild foods, but my decision to start in the dead of winter may have been a little misguided. Regardless, I’ve come up with a few snowbound topics.

Rose Hips

Not quite “wild”, but definitely local–the rose bush in my backyard, the last survivor of three planted by the previous owner, bloomed fairly well this year. I dutifully dead-headed, cutting off blooms that were past their prime. This ritual stimulates the rose to continue blooming. As fall approached, I let the rose blossoms mature, lose their petals, and set fruit. The orangey, marble-sized hips remain on the bush throughout winter. They are reportedly rich in vitamin C, which is not easy to come by locally in midwinter.

I prepared the hips in the recommended manner–gather a handful, pour hot water over them, and let steep for 10 minutes. This results in a pinkish intiction that was no great pleasure to drink. It may be the variety of rose (some may taste better than others), or the quality of the hips–by the time of harvest, mine had been through several freezes and thaws, with temperatures from freezing up through the seventies and back to freezing again. Like the brussel sprouts still frozen in my backyard, which are cooking up mushy these days, the rose hips may have seen better days. I will definitely try this earlier next season, and will try new varieties, but would have to be looking scurvy in the eye to revisit the beverage I’ve just finished.

Starting Seeds

In the dank, moldy shower stall in the corner of our basement, I’ve set up a two-level greenhouse to get a head start on the growing season. It’s a pretty crude affair–two scrap lumber frames, covered in lathe slats, with some discount flourescent lighting rigs. I lined the glass door with aluminum foil to reflect the light back into the shower stall, and have all of my lights plugged into a single powerstrip, which allows for easy on-off every morning and evening. To the casual observer, it looks an awful lot like I’m growing marijuana on a commercial scale. My digital camera is not functioning at the moment, but I’d like to provide some pictures in the future.

It’s well ahead of our last frost-free date (sometime in May), but I started a few things this week. In addition to some early flowers, I’ve got spinach and lettuce, which will go into the cold-frame for an early salad crop, and asparagus. Last year, the asparagus I grew from seed was completely eaten by slugs within two days of setting it out. I then purchased two dozen year-old roots, which will be entering their second year this spring (harvest is supposed to start at the three-year mark). By starting from seed again this year, I put myself a year into the hole and risk another slug attack, but I’ll save a considerable sum of money over buying roots. I also feed into an illogical drive for legitimacy, according to which growing from seed is more respectable than any shortcut. If my seed-starting fails again this year, I’ll be humbly purchasing and planting asparagus crowns when the soil can be worked.