How often have you heard people say they are going to start a diet and have to begin eating rabbit food? Happens all the time, as people equate losing weight with eating nothing but lettuce. The reality of this scenario is that eating leafy greens, not just lettuce, is a healthy choice to get one motivated into eating more fresh fruits and vegetables with less processed foods. Rabbits will eat small tree branches also, but rarely do we incorporate that into our diets. So we may eat like rabbits at times, but only because it is a healthy option.
As gardeners, we tend to promote the benefits of growing your own fruits and vegetables whenever possible, as we all know homegrown produce is much more flavorful than the products we buy in the store. If we do not have the space for a garden the next best choice is to shop the farmers markets.
One of the earliest and easiest vegetables to grow in the garden is from the leafy greens group. Items such as lettuce, herbs, spinach, mesclun and kale all can be easily grown in the garden for a mix of delicious flavors. Lettuce happens to grow the quickest and produce harvestable leaves within 30 days of planting. Since they are a cool weather plant, they taste best before the heat of midsummer arrives.
Lettuce is a fairly fine seed and prefers to be planted about an eighth to a fourth inch into the soil. They prefer well-drained sunny locations for optimal growth. With some moisture and sun, the lettuce will begin to emerge within about five to seven days.
Leaf lettuce should be spaced about 4 inches apart where head types should be spaced 12 to 14 inches apart for best production and less competition. This also cuts back on plant diseases.
Planted in rows in the garden, protect it with a netting to keep the rabbits and deer away from harvesting the crop while you are asleep. I prefer to plant it in large bowls on the deck, which makes it easy access for picking and the animals tend to fear getting that close to the house where people frequent. Since lettuce grows at a fairly rapid rate, this allows you to harvest every three days to make the most of your endeavor.
Temperatures under 75 degrees allow lettuce to grow at preferred levels. When temperatures go above 80 degrees, the plants tend to bolt and set seed, ending the growing cycle. Usually, lettuce leaves at this temperature will begin to obtain a bitter taste when eaten, but it is still good when mixed with a variety of other greens.
Of the varieties available in the market, the three most common selections are leaf, head and romaine lettuce.
Leaf lettuce or loose-leaf lettuce is most commonly used for salads, probably the most commonly grown in the garden. Romaine lettuce produces tall slender heads with a more crisp texture. This is commonly used in making caesar salads and being used on sandwiches. Iceberg or crisphead lettuce is very common in the marketplace, consisting of more water than any of the other varieties and having less nutritional value. Bibb or butterhead lettuce forms dark green heads of loose leaves and has a sweeter flavor over the others; very good when blending with other lettuce types for salads.
Nutritionally, lettuce is a good source of vitamin A, vitamin K and potassium. The darker leafed varieties have higher concentrations over the light-colored selections. Fiber is presented in the ribs and stems of the leaves, but at low levels.
There can be many pests in the garden that will attack your lettuce - mainly rabbits and deer as they love the succulent greens. If plants are too close together, slugs, snails and leafhoppers can become a problem along with gray mold and stem rot. Good aeration is key to controlling many of these issues and netting will prevent larger animals from feeding.
Good tips to rely on for making your crop last longest is to provide a ground mulch to keep the roots cool, plant taller items to the side that receives the hottest sun during the day to shade them, and water them whenever they show signs of wilt to keep them fresh and vigorous.
After harvest, keep them in bags with high humidity and cool temperatures between 32 and 35 degrees. This will allow them to keep up to 10 days in most cases for freshness.
Grow some lettuce in your garden this season, as it is not too late and the cool start has made for a good crop this year so far. Eat like a rabbit and get excited about lettuce selections to make the ultimate salad and encourage new additions of vegetables into your daily diet. Gardening is fun, educational and nutritious on so many levels.