Lettuce Get Ready to Plant

Thursday, September 22, 2011
Turn the soil over in existing beds and pots, add some organic matter to it along with some fertilizer (you get both with Mighty Grow Living Organic Fertilizer) and water it well. Let it rest for a couple of weeks and consult local planting dates to decide what to plant and when. In Mississippi, we have The Garden Tabloid, available at this website: www.msucares.com/pubs/publications/p1091.pdf or your local extension office. Each state’s cooperative extension service has similar publications with planting dates. I’m planting lots of greens, as usual. What is ‘mesclun’, and since we eat it in salads, why can’t we just call it ‘lettuce’? We could lump all the salad greens together, but that doesn’t give a clue to how different they are when it comes to growing and harvesting these delicious vegetables. Here’s what these greens are and how to best care for them in containers. Lettuce comes in 2 basic types, those that make a solid head and those that do not. Head lettuces have names like ‘Iceberg’ and ‘Great Lakes’, which is a definite clue to how hard they can be to grow around here. Work your way up to the head lettuces, as they are definitely worth the extra effort and taste much better than the nearly white, often tasteless grocery store types. Give each head of lettuce a solo 5 or 10 gallon pot for plenty of room to grow when you decide to give them a grow. Start instead with the lettuces that do not make a solid head, called the loose leaf types. Some of them, like romaine and bibb, make sort of a head at their center which tastes quite different from their outer leaves. The combination of inner and outer leaves of semi-heading lettuce makes a salad that tastes harmonious. 2-3 plants of semi-heading lettuce fills a 10 gallon pot. Even looser heads are the hallmark of leaf lettuces like ‘Oakleaf’ and ‘Red Sails’ with delicious leaves that sprout up en masse from a small center. Unlike the others, leaf lettuces can grow individually or be interplanted very closely with each other and mescluns. In that case, you’ll use scissors to harvest leaves for salad and watch new ones sprout again right away. Mesclun is the name given to salad mixes made from a wide range of lettuces, mustard, arugula, chickory, endive and raddichio, among others. Sow these seeds over the entire surface of any size pot, and thin the seedlings to stand 1-2” apart to harvest as small leaves, or 4-6” apart for larger leaves. By the way, there’s still time for a quick crop of basil to harvest for the freezer. If yours, like mine, got a bit out of hand during the summer drought, plant now and harvest by Thanksgiving. Herb growing has become a big part of many food gardens, especially container gardens. It’s important to have some salt in our daily diets, but most of us eat way too much. The problem is that salt is a wonderful taste itself and its presence in food brings out other flavors as well. Many of us grow herbs for their bold flavors and find that using herbs in cooking helps cut down on the amount of salt needed to make food taste good. Of course, the bold and subtle tastes in herbs are exciting to our tastebuds, too! Not too many people would know what to do with borage or savory, but everyone eats basil even if they don’t realize it. If you eat pizza or spaghetti or marinara sauce, you eat basil. It is one of the main components of Italian red sauce and is sometimes included in processed tomatoes, too. Basil is the easiest herb to grow and is a summer annual. Grow 2-3 plants in a 5 gallon container and fertilize it lightly when you feed the tomatoes and squash. We plant basil in April and harvest for weeks if not months by snipping off leaves as we need them. The process of snipping keeps the plants growing and branching so there’s more to harvest in no time. Snipping also prevents flowering and seed set, which would signal the end of the plant’s year and is to be avoided. Try basil in your own tomato sauces, ground with pine nuts for pesto and freshly picked with vine-ripe tomatoes and mozzarella cheese. When lots of basil leaves need to be harvested, it’s easy to freeze them for future use. Wash the leaves, cut them into shreds with scissors and fill ice cube trays with the leaves and just enough water to cover them. Once frozen, pop the basil cubes into a freezer bag and store frozen. Try these basils: Genovese, aka pesto basil, is the traditional herb for Italian cooking; Thai basil is sweeter and used in Asian cooking; cinnamon basil has rich, robust flavor. Enjoy them all!
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