Lettuce

Lettuce is a cool-season vegetable, with fall planting dates starting in mid-August until Sept. 1 and spring planting dates starting mid-January through February. 

I have to admit, I am a boring salad gal. I like a honeymoon salad – lettuce alone.

My ideal salad is a Caesar salad – romaine lettuce, parmesan cheese, croutons and a classic Caesar dressing. The dressing makes the salad for me. I am that diner who will ask for a sample of the dressing before committing to ordering the salad.

My husband, on the other hand, is the kitchen sink salad kind of guy — five varieties of lettuce, hard-boiled egg, sautéed mushrooms, peppers, tomatoes, carrot, radish, nuts, chickpeas, chicken, steak. Throw it all on there.

He will also use a variety of dressings. It’s anarchy, if you ask me.

He is not alone in his adventurous salad ways. Restaurant salad bars, as well as by-the-pound bars, can offer a bountiful display of salad additions. Many restaurants have signature salads with combinations to tantalize every taste bud. Some chefs are even offering grilled salads, and diners are eating it up.

Salad never goes out of style. Even the plain-Jane iceberg wedge salad has recently resurrected itself from its 1960s glory days. If you like mixed greens, growing them is easy.

Lettuce is a cool-season vegetable, with fall planting dates starting in mid-August until Sept. 1 and spring planting dates starting mid-January through February. Lettuce can be either transplanted (seedling) or seeded directly in the garden. Spring lettuce is more successful started from seedling whereas fall plants do better as a direct-seeded crop as long as they are well watered until established.

Maturity dates vary depending on the variety. Plan your plant date so the crop has time to mature before freezing temperatures in fall and hot temperatures in spring. Lettuce can handle a light frost but freezing temperatures may damage plants. In spring, hot temperatures will cause the lettuce to develop a bitter flavor.

Fertile, high organic matter soil that has good water-holding capacity are beneficial for successful lettuce production. A soil pH of 6.0 to 6.5 is preferred. Before planting, apply 2 or 3 pounds of 8-8-8 fertilizer per 100 square feet and incorporate it into the soil. One pound is equal to 2 cups, and 100 square feet is a 10-foot-by-10-foot area. Four to six cups of fertilizer would then be added to a 10-by-10 area. Adjust the amount based on the size of your area.

Based on the appearance and rate of progress, one or more side-dress applications of one cup of 33-0-0 per 100 feet of row can be applied. The first number, the amount of nitrogen in the fertilizer is high. Nitrogen is the growth element that promotes green, leafy growth. Lettuce is all about the leaves.

Head lettuce should be planted 12 to 15 inches apart within rows that are at least 2 feet apart. Leaf, butterhead and romaine (cos) should be planted 9 to 12 inches apart within rows that are 2 to 3 feet apart.

Keep the area free of weeds that compete for water and nutrients. Mulches are beneficial for lettuce production. Black plastic mulch may warm soil on the spring crop, and organic mulches help keep the soil cool on the fall crop.

Head lettuce can be harvested when the heads are firm and the top of the heads have broadened and are light green in color. Leaf lettuce is harvested when the outer leaves are 4 to 6 inches long. New leaves will continue to be produced through the remainder of the growing season.

Varieties of lettuce

• Butterhead (aka: Boston, Bibb) lettuce: Soft leaves are smooth like butter. Suggested varieties include: Buttercrunch, Ermosa, Esmeralda, Harmony, and Optima. Maturity: 65-80 days;

• Romaine (aka: Cos) head lettuce: Large, stiff leaves with a center rib that give it a good crunch. Suggested varieties include: Green Towers and Parris Island Cos. Maturity: 80-85 days;

• Leaf (aka: Looseleaf, Green Leaf, Red Leaf): Large ruffled leaves with a mild flavor. Add texture and color to salads. Hold dressing well. Suggested varieties include: Red leaf: New Red Fire, Red Prize, Red Sails, Red Salad. Green leaf: Salad Bowl, Sierra, Slobolt, Tango. Maturity: 40-50 days.

Other salad greens

• Frisée (aka: Curly Endive, Chicory Endive). Curled yellow and green leaves with a slightly bitter taste. Adds texture to salads and can be used as a substitute for escarole;

• Escarole (aka: Broad-leaved Endive): Large, crisp, green leaves with a mild bitter flavor. Often used in soups in Italian cuisine;

• Endive (aka: Belgian Endive, Witloof): Smooth, oval leaves with a slightly bitter taste. The shape makes them ideal as the base for filling in small hors d’oeuvres;

• Arugula (aka: Rocket, Italian cress): Small, green leaves with a peppery taste. Used raw or cooked in Mediterranean dishes. Popular pizza topping in Europe;

• Radicchio (aka: Red Chicory, Italian Chicory): Red-purplish leaves with a bitter taste. Grilling or roasting turns the bitter to sweet; and

• Mache (aka: Field Salad, Lamb’s Lettuce): Small, delicate leaves with a slightly sweet flavor.

Grab your greens, mix them together, throw in the kitchen sink, and enjoy a nice big salad. Until next week, happy gardening.

— Irland, a member of the Limestone County Master Gardeners, can be reached at kippirland@hotmail.com. For more information on the Limestone County Master Gardeners, visit http://mg.aces.edu/limestone.