The belles of the ball

Every devoted gardener is under the spell of one botanical or another. My friend Molly in California has a garden full of roses and strawberries. Plums and potatoes attracted Luther Burbank, while peanuts inspired George Washington Carver. And according to legend, Johnny Appleseed had a one-track mind.

But lettuces are the belles of the ball at my garden parties. Give me a crop that requires minimal space; has few significant enemies; and is beautiful, tasty, nutritious, frequently available and easy to grow. Lettuce fills the bill on all counts. And in my cozy corner of the Southern Appalachians, May is when the first wave of lettuces form their frilled, flounced heads (which remind my fanciful granddaughter, Ivy Rose, of the ruffled skirts of folk dancers).

Like her grandmother, Ivy Rose is a salad lover and a lettuce grower. This agricultural prodigy has a picture on her bulletin board of a 2,500-year-old wall carving showing an ancient Egyptian gardener harvesting a 30-inch-high variety of romaine. In a school science report, Ivy Rose explains that the word “romaine” is old French for “Roman” (because, in Europe, the first cultivated varieties of this type of lettuce grew in Roman gardens). An even older name, says Ivy Rose, is “cos,” because some of the earliest romaine seed came to Europe from the Greek island of Cos, a center of lettuce growing during the first millennium A.D.

It’s not surprising that this member of the chrysanthemum family has been popular in home gardens for centuries. Lettuce leaves, especially the dark green ones, are packed with nutrients that tone up the immune system and invigorate eyes, skin and hair. Lettuce is economical for a small kitchen garden. Except for the roots, every bit of it is edible — in contrast, say, to squash, most of which ends up on the compost pile. With the right care, lettuce grows fast and is one of the earliest garden treats of spring, when a body craves fresh greens.

Starting in late February, I plant small patches of two or three kinds of lettuce every three weeks. The last planting, in October, I overwinter, coddling it under floating row cover. I allow only a few seedlings in each patch to head up. The rest we consume in their young, tender, vitamin-rich “thinnings” stage. The first “thinnings” salad in April is one of our family’s sacred food celebrations. Through the end of November, we enjoy salads made from those young leaves that cost $6 or $7 a pound in local markets.

A cool-soil lover, lettuce thrives in the three-month springs and falls of the Southern Appalachians. There have always been summer varieties; Ivy Rose’s 30-inch Egyptian romaine was probably one. My granddaughter points out that the ancient Egyptian gardener in her print is wearing practically nothing, so it must be hot.

Growing lettuce is easy once you know how to meet its simple needs. As your soil improves, so will your lettuce crop. Soil rich in organic matter (including worm manure) will drain well but hold enough moisture to keep the shallow roots of lettuce damp and cool. Let them dry out and the plants will bolt — stop making leaves and start making flowers. I plant my lettuces close enough together that they form a “living mulch.” During warm, sunny spells, I water my lettuce patches every morning (the peak time of day for leaves to combine sunlight and water to create leaf growth).

Before planting, I sweeten my lettuce beds by mixing ashes from our wood stove into the soil — about a cup of ashes per square foot of garden space. Ashes enhance the flavor of lettuce and deter slugs (the plant’s lone pest problem in this eco-niche). Back when the soil in my garden beds was still more red clay than loam, I faced an awesome slug challenge (which dwindled away over the years as I raised the soil pH with ashes and other organic matter).

Lettuce is easy to plant. I simply pull back the mulch covering the area to be planted and “broadcast” the tiny seeds — sprinkle them over the soft soil a mulch creates. Broadcasting is Ivy Rose’s preferred planting method, so if she’s around, she sows the lettuce. Whoever does the planting covers the broadcast seed with a thin layer of compost, pats it down, adds a sparse layer of old, crumbly hay mulch, then waters with the hose set on a gentle shower. The key to strong, prompt germination of lettuce is to keep the seeded soil constantly moist.

For maximum nutrition, harvest lettuce early in the morning, when sunlight first touches it. Wash, dry and refrigerate the plants (in plastic bags or sealed containers) as soon as possible. I wouldn’t be without a lettuce spin-dryer. My $10 model from a local kitchen discount store has weathered years of heavy use. Ivy Rose loves it; if she’s around, I wash and she spin-dries the day’s lettuce harvest.

Ivy Rose’s research has turned up the following lettuce facts: Loose-leafs are the fastest growing and have the highest resistance to bolting. Romaine has the second-highest bolting resistance and is the most nutritious. Crispheads (supermarket iceberg is the best known of these) are slowest to mature, quickest to bolt and the least nutritious.

Although I try new lettuce varieties every year, Tango and Buttercrunch are my cool-season favorites to date. Black Seeded Simpson and Bronze Mignonette (both loose-leafs) along with Little Germ romaine carry on all summer, as long as their roots are kept cool and damp.

We allow one big, healthy lettuce in each patch to go to seed. In her illustrated science report, Ivy Rose describes how she grew a romaine plant, let it complete its life cycle and collected its seed, which she planted the following spring. One photo shows her snipping the seed head from a 3-foot-high column that’s no longer even recognizable as romaine. She dried the seed head upside down in a paper bag in a cool, airy place for a month, then put it in a shallow pan, took it outside and winnowed the seed. ( She loves to gently blow away the fuzzy chaff.) Finally, she stored the cleaned seed in the fridge in a tightly capped jar, labeled with its name and the year of its harvest, ready for the next planting season.

“From seed to seed,” concludes my granddaughter’s science report, “lettuce has taught me that life is like a contra dance. It goes round and round in circles.”

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