Saturday, March 16, 2013

Lettuce We Grow

Lettuce seeds

Because we eat a lot of lettuce, we grow a lot. We have tried numerous varieties over the years, and here are the ones which we like best and which do best at Roche Fleurie.

Our “basic” lettuce, the one we seed regularly to make sure we always have some available and on which we rely throughout the growing season, is a German variety called Kagraner Sommer 2. It is a Bibb or Butterhead type lettuce (Lactuca sativa var. capitata), which means that it makes a head but, in my experience, not a very big one, and is much looser than, say, that of Iceberg lettuce. The colour is yellow green. It is a delicious lettuce and very slow to bolt.

The fact Kagraner Sommer 2 is a good performer in the heat of summer is its most advertised characteristic. Reading about lettuce, I was surprised to realize that another name for the Bibb or Butterhead types of lettuce is "limestone lettuce", which obviously explains why they do very well at Roche Fleurie. I suppose they do not give as good a result in an acidic soil.

I get Karaner Sommer 2 from Emanuele Larosa Sementi, an Italian firm whose seeds in Southern Ontario you can find mostly in Italian grocery stores. They come in foil packages (which means they remain more viable) and you get a lot of seeds for $1.99 a package.

Our second favourite lettuce is “Sea of Red” from Renee’s Garden Seeds. It is a leaf lettuce that does not make a head. It is a beautiful lettuce which is also very slow to bolt. For us, it starts going to seed only in October. At the end of the season, unless you have started new plants, it starts getting bitter, like endives. However, we like a bit of bitterness in our salads, so we still eat it at that stage. To avoid any bitter taste, you would have to make sure to do several seedings.

As I said, it is beautiful. You could certainly grow it only for its look, and it would outperform many ornamental plants since it is long lasting in the heat.

We also like Merveilles des Quatre Saisons, a French heirloom offered by various seed company. We get it from Renee’s Garden Seeds. It is also a Bibb/limestone type, but with green leaves merging into dark red on the edge. At Roche Fleurie, it grows just like Kagraner Sommer 2. In fact, last summer we grew them next to each other, one row of one, one row of the other, and they grew at exactly the same rate. Merveille des Quatre Saisons is slightly less crunchy than Kagraner Sommer 2. They go very well together in a salad.

Finally we grow a fourth variety which varies from year to year. We choose the leaf lettuce that is most readily available that year. It has often been Red Sail, which looks like Merveille des Quatre Saisons but is a leaf lettuce. The main point about this last lettuce is that it will bolt in the  heat and self-seed. I like to let lettuce go to seed in the later summer/fall. It ensures that early the next spring, when the snow melts, we have a few lettuce plants that have volunteered throughout the garden. In spring I find small lettuce plants scattered around where they self seeded the previous year. I move them closer together, put a row cover over them and they are the first lettuces we eat. It is a technique I learned from Albert Schaefer, a gardener in his 80s I was friends with when I started gardening in my late 20s. He had an unusual life as he died in his late 80s, in the house where he was born - he had never lived anywhere else in his life. Even with self-seeders, we still have to buy seeds in the spring as we eat all of the plants that volunteered.

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