This winter, according to Accuweather, my Mid-Atlantic zone is running about 10 degrees colder than normal. I would say so! With wind chills, we have hit negative numbers like -17 and -24 degrees.
For a gardener, sitting inside, listening to the wind howl and watching the earth be scoured by shards of bright, shiny snow could be depressing. But this week, I decided to head for the basement and start some seeds.
What could I possibly have in mind considering the arctic conditions outdoors? Just one crop…lettuce.
I love raising my own lettuce. It’s a love born out of hate. That sounds like an oxymoron but it isn’t
I started raising lettuce when the price for 12 ounces of the organic stuff hit $5.98 a bag. For me, that’s $18 a week for just a bit over a pound of green leafy lettuce. Do the math. I was spending almost $1000 a year on lettuce! Try doing that on a fixed income.
I hated paying the price so I stared planting and growing my own. And guess what? Lettuce is one of the easiest crops I have ever raised. And, it’s a two-fer! Save your seeds and pay no more (well maybe you’ll have to buy every 3 or 4 years). Just keep planting and harvesting.
So, let’s start with seeds. I am pretty particular about whose seed I buy. I want organic seed, especially if I plan on saving and sowing. And I want flavorful leaf lettuce — not head lettuce you have to chop with a cleaver. And I definitely do not want Genetically Modified (GMO) seed.
There are four places I buy seed:
Adaptive Seeds – this is relatively new company, established in 2009 and based at Open Oak Farm in Sweet Home, Oregon. Their seeds are absolutely wonderful. The moving forces behind this company – Sarah Kleeger and Andrew Still — are devoted to “…finding, stewarding and sharing rare, diverse and resilient seed varieties for ecologically-minded farmers, gardeners and seed savers.” They sell only public domain, open pollinated (OP) seed, as well as many diverse gene pool mixes.
Hudson Valley Seed Library – the variety they offer is impressive. Their seed is locally grown in a climate and soil not unlike mine here in Zone 6b. And this company helps support school and community gardeners with donations of seeds.
Territorial Seeds – kind of the granddaddy of organic seed growers, this company was organic before organic went mainstream. Family owned, Territorial Seeds has a fantastic reputation for the seeds it sells and the customer service it brings to the table.
Grow Italian – I discovered this company more than a decade ago and it’s my go to seed company for all things Italian including some lettuce and mixed greens. When you buy a packet of lattuga from them, you get high quality, high-germinating seeds and a lot of them.
I think the hardest part of growing lettuce is picking the kinds you want to try. But once you have your seeds, planting is so easy, you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it sooner.
I tend to sow the seeds right in the garden bed. One problem planting lettuce is that the seeds are small and lightweight and they tend to drop into the dirt in clumps or blow off my hand. I used to have a hard time getting them to spread out on the soil but here’s a trick my sister taught me.
- Get some soil – take it from your garden if it’s rich and light or grab some potting mix.
- Fill a quart jar about 2/3rds full of the soil.
- Put lettuce seeds in the jar. I put different types together so I grow my own “mixed greens.”
- Shake the jar until all the seeds are mixed, uniformly, through the soil.
- Gently shake the soil out of the jar and into your beds. If you can still see some of them, put just a tiny bit of dirt over the visible ones.
- Water the seeds in.
Then all you have to do is water every day until the seeds spout. Then water weekly and wait for the lettuce to grow.
A few more tips:
- Don’t plant in the summer! Lettuce, like beets, likes cool weather. You can plant in the spring and again in August for harvest in late September and October.
- Start lettuce plants indoors if you want. I use 40-cell growing trays and start mine in early February. When I transplant, I cover the babies with a small tunnel to protect them from frost.
- When you cut lettuce leaves, don’t cut them down to the ground. Cut about an inch from the bottom and you will get a second crop.
- If you want to save the seeds, plant for a spring harvest but only cut the first crop. Let the second set of lettuce leaves grow up and flower. Then wait. It will be tempting to take the flower heads off when they get their puffy, white hair. DON’T. The seeds need to mature. Wait until the heads are dry, brown and about ready to burst. Then pull the seed heads off, take the seeds out and let them dry in a small strainer for a couple of weeks. I refrigerate mine once they’re dry and plant them in the fall.
So while the wind howls around our house, I am happily ensconced in the basement playing with and planting lettuce seeds.
Excerpted from my book – Grow So Easy: Organic Gardening for the Rest of Us – a guide to easy, fun and productive organic gardening for everyone.