Let us talk about lettuce. It’s the backbone of many market gardens, and my business is no different. Lettuce is a good crop for small veg operations for at least four reasons:
There are a lot of people who eat a lot of salads.
Lettuce doesn’t require pruning or heavy fertilizing. It’s pretty easy to grow well (especially in the spring and fall).
Food distributors carry boring, monotonous types of lettuce: romaine, iceberg, and butterhead if you’re lucky.
Lettuce is highly perishable. If harvested at the wrong time of day, shipped across the country, or accidentally left out of the refrigerator for a half hour, shelf life and quality are greatly diminished.
And businesses like Garden Variety Harvests are able to attack #2 and #3 pretty easily. My selection of lettuce seed is far from a monolith. There are five basic types of lettuce: loose leaf, romaine, crisphead, butterhead, and stem lettuce. But within each type there are oodles of individual specimens. One popular seed supplier who goes by a boy’s name that starts with J will happily sell over 140 lettuce varieties. This isn’t an endorsement of said seed supplier; just a frame of reference for how many distinct types are available of the stuff. With such a diverse assortment of options, it’s possible to find a handful of lettuces that are prepared to perform well in your micro-climate, and to bring all the color, flavor, and folly you need in an excellent spring mix.
As of today, our production of lettuce has doubled compared to last year. And it’s not hard to find customers and chefs that are ready to serve up and gobble down the product. I’m infinitely better at growing it over last year, too. We’re getting second and third cuts from our lettuce beds, whereas last year single cuts were the standard. I’ve settled on a few varieties I really love. The star of our spring mix is the Speckled Bibb, a heat tolerant variety with a randomized splatter of color down the heart of the leaf. Tango and Jericho are my favorite green varieties: one is frilly and wild, the other is a reserved, heat-loving baby romaine. I also plant a lot of Red Oak Leaf, which seems to turn a deeper color in stressful conditions, but never succumbs to transplant shock. I’m also getting ready to experiment with a summer lettuce called Muir, which I’ve heard many southern vegetable growers rave about.
When it comes to plant nutrition, all you need to grow a good head of lettuce is a wee bit of nitrogen. It’s not a heavy feeder at all, which opens up some interesting opportunities for inter-planting. Internet resources will suggest companion planting with chives or garlic to repel aphids, or beans and peas to supply a boost of nitrogen in degraded soils. Just last week, I teamed up lettuce and my other favorite crop, okra (see blog 33) , in a bed to see how they play together. My thinking is that by the time the lettuce is ready for it’s first cut, the okra will have reached about 2 feet tall. After that, I’m hoping the broad leafs of the tall okra plants will give the lettuce enough shade to get a second cut in mid-summer.
One other way I’m trying to extend our production of lettuce into the heat of the southern summer is by using shadecloth. By cutting the sun by 40%, I hope the lettuce doesn’t experience tip-burn or begin to bolt because of the relentless swelter. Only time will tell whether this works in our context, but I got the ideas from a couple other farmers in Tennessee and Arizona who produce hundreds of pounds of lettuce a week in locales even less forgiving than SW Virginia. If they can do it, I’m sure we can find a way to keep the spring mix flowing through the summer!
Our spring mix is in perfect form for the Grandin Village Farmers market tomorrow morning. Come on by and get a bag while supplies last!