The last of the romaine and red-leaf lettuce are harvested and in the fridge awaiting the dinner table. The recent wave of hot temperatures caused the few remaining heads of lettuce in the raised bed garden to bolt (go to seed) and turn bitter tasting …. so into the compost pile they went. Every summer at this time, I resent having to buy organic lettuce when just a few weeks earlier, I couldn’t keep up with it! What about planting lettuce in the summer? Until now, I didn’t think it was an option but the thought of going lettuce-less for the summer drove me to do some research.
One of the best articles I read online was “Long Lived Lettuce” by Willi Evans Galloway found on www.rodalesorganiclife.com. According to the author, it is possible to grow a summer crop of lettuce despite the heat…no bolting or bitterness! Here are a few helpful hints from several of the articles I have researched:
- Choose a location that gets partial shade during the heat of the day. This can be shade provided by other taller vegetable plants (corn, tomatoes etc.) or a part of your garden that is shaded by a large shrub or tree. If no shade is available during the mid-day hours, just cover your lettuce with shade cloth or row cover once the seedlings are up.
- Start by applying a 1″ top-dress of an organic weed-free compost to your garden bed. Lettuce seeds are tiny and the plants have shallow root systems which do not compete well with the aggressive root systems of weeds that will sprout in garden soil. I’ll be using Quoddy Blend Lobster Compost as my top-dress.
- Utilize the cut-and-come-again method of growing loose-leaf lettuce rather than growing head lettuce. This is where the plants are clipped off an inch or so from the ground and the base of the plant regenerates leaves that will give you another harvest a couple of weeks later. Lettuce leaves harvested when they’re young will be more flavorful and tender. The older the plant is, the more tough and bitter it will be which is why growing head lettuce (a longer crop) in the summer is not a good choice.
- Lettuce seeds germinate in just a few days when the soil is around 70 degrees, but in the heat of the summer, the seed will go dormant. Your best bet for good seed germination is to purchase heat-tolerant varieties of leaf lettuce (Batavian varieties, Salad Bowl, Oakleaf, Black-seeded Simpson). Also, storing your lettuce seed in an airtight container in the refrigerator until sowing will help. Lastly, cool down the soil for a few days prior to planting by keeping it moist and covering it with wet burlap.
- You can also use spicy mesclun mix blends which will give you a lettuce garden full of colors, textures and flavors. Or just mix several lettuce types together before sowing.
- Rather than planting the lettuce in rows, scatter the seed loosely over a set area of the garden. They need light to germinate, so cover them with a very light layer of screened compost. Be sure to keep the soil surface moist at all times. When the seedlings reach 1 inch in height, thin them to about 1-2″ apart and side-dress with an organic fertilizer or alfalfa meal (a steady supply of nitrogen). This “non-row” method will mean that you won’t have to mulch because the lettuce will fill in the bed quickly to shade out weeds and keep the soil moist.
- You can also stagger your crops by dividing your bed into several sections and planting a new portion of the bed every 3 weeks.
- Keeping your lettuce beds watered is key. Bitterness and bolting not only develop in older plants but also in young plants that are water-starved and wilted.
- Once the leaves are 4-5″ tall, cut a handful at a time with scissors no less than one inch above the crown of the plant. You’ll have new leaves to harvest in 2 weeks or so! Each bed can usually be harvested in this manner 3-4 times (depending on the climate). Only harvest in the cool of the morning when the water content and flavor are at their peak!
I can’t wait to try this method and am hoping that you will be inspired to do as well. Imagine….. seed to salad in less than a month! And all summer long!!!
Happy Gardening from your friends at Coast of Maine!