Lettuce begin

F&F member Julie Knight teaches us to grow the humble lettuce.

When anyone asks me about growing their own produce, I usually recommend the humble lettuce as a starting point. It’s almost universally liked, easy to germinate, fairly undemanding once in the ground and tastes just wonderful straight from the plot. And considering how much we can easily spend on those bags of loose salad leaves throughout the year, it’s a real saving on the pocket too.

You can get any number of varieties of lettuce or salad leaves available to buy as seeds. While loose leaf or ‘cut and come again’ salad has a regular place in my plot, small butterhead lettuces will always feature from spring right through to late autumn.

As slugs and snail often prey on tiny seedlings in my raised beds, I usually start my lettuces off in a seed tray in early April. After firming in some fresh compost and watering this in well, I sprinkle the seeds thinly over the entire surface and cover with a thin layer of finely sieved compost. This tray then goes into an unheated greenhouse where the first seedlings will usually start to appear after only 4-5 days. I judge the need for watering on the weight of the seed tray – and if it feels a little light, I sit it in water (in a larger seed tray or simply in the sink) for 15 mins to soak.

Once the little seedlings start to develop their true leaves, they’re ready for pricking out. At this stage they’re still too small for me to risk putting into my garden, so this time they go into a module tray – mine accommodate 20 plants. So, choose the strongest plants and transfer them over with some fresh compost. They’ll start to really put on some growth now and now is the time to get them ‘hardened off’, which simply means getting them adjusted to outdoor living (with all the temperature changes and windy conditions that come with that) compared to their relatively sheltered life in the greenhouse. You just need to put them outside during the day and take them back inside in the evening – after about 10 days of this they should have toughened up.

And now you’re ready to plant them out in the ground. Choose a space that’s slightly shaded, as too much direct sun or heat can cause them to prematurely bolt and produce flowerheads – thus rendering the leaves inedible. Space them about 40cm apart to allow for their growth, firm them in and give them a good watering. Then sit back, water during prolonged dry periods and start planning what to have with that lovely salad. You should repeat this method every month or so throughout the spring and summer to ensure a plentiful (and hopefully continuous) supply of fresh salad to your table.

 

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