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How to plant lettuce: So many choices, so many ways

Lettuce romaine
The Dry Garden: Planting lettuce

If you’ve ever wondered when to plant lettuce, watch for dandelions. Every spring and autumn, these urban wildflowers signal the start of temperate periods when the region has warmed up or cooled down to the point that it’s salad season.

Dandelion 2 This is no coincidence. Dandelions came to the U.S. as a salad crop and only lost favor because of their runaway resilience and the manifold peculiarities of lawn culture. So, if you’ve got dandelions, and they’re not growing in too filthy a spot, by all means eat their young leaves as you augment their ranks with bib, butter and romaine lettuces.

Lettuces come in so many flavors, textures, forms and colors that it’s not uncommon to see the plants promoted for use as ornamental ruffling along front yard walkways. My own advice is not to plant lettuce in any spot where it can be trampled by trick-or-treaters, ravaged by pests or peed on by pets, or where it becomes more tempting to look at it than to eat.

 That said, salads in pots on a front step or in a window box are terrific options for apartment dwellers and can produce a surprising number of meals. Those with gardens also can keep salad gardens in raised beds or straight in the ground. If you're working in ground where lawn had been, after removing grass you may want to leave the patch briefly, water it, wait for weeds to emerge and pull them before sowing your lettuce.

Lettuce seedlingsFor a new salad garden, existing garden soil will almost certainly require leavening with up to 50% of good amendment, generally a mix of cured manure for nitrogen and humus-rich compost. For an existing bed with soil that already has been improved, simply layer on compost and maybe some aged manure before seeding. It shouldn’t be necessary to turn the soil.

If setting a raised bed on open soil, use the blunt end of a pick to fracture the top of the ground and create a plausible bond between existing soil and the imported compost-soil mix on top. This should encourage drainage into the ground rather than out the sides of the box. It also should initiate the slow process of root and earthworm traffic between the raised bed and compacted lower stratum.

While a foot or more is optimal for a raised bed that ultimately will contain mixed vegetable crops, salad gardens should not require more than six to eight inches.

Lettuce planting As you seed, remember access. You’ll need room to get in between the plants to thin and weed. A safe margin for larger, in-ground crop rows is roughly two feet apart. For a jazzy touch, run the lines on a bias. Do not seed all at once, but work at weekly or even biweekly intervals, so you have a nice continuum of greens. Planters and window boxes can be seeded more densely because access is easy and overflowing growth is readily thinned.

I generally start planting salads at the end of September. The problem with this plan has a name: Santa Ana. When those fall Santa Ana winds blow out of the desert, they can bring sudden heat or frost. Either way, a beautiful new crop of lettuces can wither or, worse, its foliage can become suffused by the bitter-tasting chemicals produced as plants “bolt,” or switch energy to producing seed.

If you're looking for insurance against heat, you can choose a partially shaded location, use burlap tenting or start salads as plugs in seedling pots. I prefer to sow lettuce in successive weeks, allowing for some attrition.

Once seeds are sown, they should be watered daily until well established. If watering by hand, use a nozzle on a gentle shower setting. Once seedlings emerge, use mulch to suppress weeds, taking care not to bury the plants.

When choosing seeds for the first time, as obvious as it sounds, pick only plants that you love to eat. If you have a favorite from a farmers market, ask the vendor for the name. This is still not a guarantee that it will taste the same from your garden. The foolproof approach is to buy a variety of seeds, then test small batches, then seriously sow the ones you like best.

If this sounds time-consuming, it’s not nearly as labor intensive as sowing and tending a lettuce crop only to find out that you don’t like it. This was my experience last winter with a pert-leaved but rank-tasting frisee that I finally donated to a neighbor to feed to his chickens. My plan this fall is to dominate a bed with individually selected mild Latuca sativa cultivars such as Forellenschluss, then to plant smaller stands of mustard-tasting greens such as arugula and mizuna for elements of spice.

Other salad plants that enjoy roughly the same cool-season cycle as lettuce include arugula, endive and radicchio. It’s also the time to start artichokes, either from seed or nursery seedlings.

-- Emily Green

Green's column on sustainable gardening appears here every Friday. For an easy way to follow future installments, join our Facebook gardening page.

Lettuces drip irrigation

Photos, from top: Homegrown romaine lettuce. Credit: Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times. Dandelion. Credit: Los Angeles Times. Lettuce seedlings in window boxes in Emily Green's garden. Credit: Diane Cu / White on Rice Couple. Seedlings transplanted from pot to ground. Credit: Jakub Mosur. Lettuces in mixed planter with drip irrigation. Credit: Emily Green

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