In the Garden: Harvesting lettuce

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Text courtesy Oregon State University Extension Service

It's no longer all about iceberg. Today, salads are a colorful blend of gourmet greens that you buy in a bag from the store. But you can get brighter color, sweeter taste and better nutrition for a fraction of the cost if you grow your own.

Home gardeners can grow a wide array of leaf, head and butter lettuces in a rainbow of red, maroon, chartreuse and emerald. Salad greens are an important source of vitamins A and C, iron, folic acid, and calcium. Iceberg lettuce pales in comparison, but homegrown, even iceberg gets better.

All lettuce grows best in cool weather and can be planted in late winter or early spring, depending on your climate zone. Hot weather causes the milky sap in lettuce to become bitter. High temperatures and long day lengths also cause lettuce plants to "bolt" or flower and go to seed.

Since lettuce grows quickly, plant a mix of varieties every two weeks for a continuous harvest through the spring. It also does well as a fall crop. However, high soil temperatures in the summer can inhibit germination.

Butterhead lettuce produces high-quality greens that mature slightly earlier than crisp-head varieties, but are less tolerant of warm weather. They include the Boston and Bibb types, characterized by undulating leaves with a soft buttery texture and a mild, sweet flavor.

Loose-leaf lettuce matures quickly and is easy to grow. Try heat-resistant varieties such as Oak Leaf or Salad Bowl for July and August harvest.

Pound for pound, the crisp, green leaves of Romaine lettuce are among the best nutrition bargains. Romaine, or cos, type of lettuce produces an elongated head of stiff, upright leaves ready about 60 days from planting.

Spinach adds a punch of color and nutrition to the salad. It grows best under cool temperatures and shorter days, so it should be planted very early in the spring and again in the fall as temperatures cool.

Endive is in the same family as lettuce, but with lots more flavor than many types of lettuce. Curly endive, sometimes called chicory, has curly-edged green leaves. Escarole, another relative of chicory, has broad, wavy green leaves with a pleasant slightly bitter flavor.

You can easily grow a selection of lettuces with seed mixes that include a rainbow of lettuce varieties in one packet.

To plant lettuce in the garden, sprinkle the seeds in half-inch deep furrows. Cover with loose soil and keep moist. Thin the seedlings gradually, so each plant is eight to 12 inches apart. Fertilize with a well-balanced fertilizer or compost.

A cold frame or cloche can allow gardeners to plant lettuce outside more than a month earlier than when planted directly in the open garden. Or start lettuce transplants indoors about five to six weeks before you intend to plant them outside.

Even apartment dwellers can enjoy fresh homegrown salad greens, easily grown in pots or other well-drained planting containers. Limit your planting density to one butter or head lettuce or several leaf lettuce plants per eight- to 10-inch pot.

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