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Lettuce Is Easy, but Calls for Lots of Water and Fertilizer

November 29, 1986|ROBERT SMAUS | Smaus is an associate editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine

Hardly a day goes by when you don't need at least a little lettuce. While beets or even beans may spend a lot of time on the bench waiting to get in the game, lettuce gets in on every scrimmage, from salads to sandwiches.

Fortunately, lettuce--the leafy types, not the head kinds--are a year-round crop in Southern California. You could plant a short row today, next Saturday or six months from now.

And, unlike most vegetables, you don't need to harvest the crop all at once, but a leaf at a time if that is all you need at the moment.

Easy to Prepare

This adds up to a very good reason to get a section of the garden aside just for lettuce. It doesn't have to be a very large area, and it doesn't even have to get a full day of sun, as lettuce is the one vegetable that can grow in a little shade. Finding a spot, preparing the ground and planting are no more than a morning's work and all you need from the nursery is a sack or two of soil amendment and a packet of seed.

You can even grow lettuce in a large container, a half-barrel for instance, if you mind the watering.

Water and fertilizer are the only secrets to growing lettuce, as illustrated by a recent find in a bundle brought home from the market. There among the plump leaves of lettuce were the equally plump leaves of a weed that I almost didn't recognize at first--common purslane. The typical garden version of this weed has leaves about 3/4 of an inch long, but the purslane in my lettuce bunch had leaves almost 2 inches long.

It was so full of moisture and nutrients it was ready to pop. It had been pigging out in the farmer's field, on torrents of water and truck loads of fertilizer. And this is how lettuce should be grown.

For this very same reason, the soil must not be heavy or it will get too soggy, so to prepare a bed for lettuce, first mix organic amendments into the soil to improve the drainage.

Fertilize Often

Fertilize as often as every two weeks, with liquid fertilizer from a watering can, or granules scattered around the plants and watered in. Fertilizer helps plump up the leaves and chase away the bitterness so often found in garden-grown lettuce. And it helps keep it growing. Lettuce should never be left to stumble along on its own in the garden. It should be grown quickly then harvested and more planted.

Grown properly it is going to taste better than market lettuce simply because you can pick it fresh. Pity the poor New Yorker who must wait six days for his lettuce to make the trip from California on a slow freight.

Successive planting is gardeners' jargon for planting a little today and a little next week so some is always going in, while others are coming out. Even though 500 seeds may come in a packet, only sow a few of them at a time, then set the packet aside for the next time. Planting lettuce every two to three weeks will keep you in salads for more than a season.

Leave Room Between Rows

Seed should be sown about an inch apart in rows a foot apart, then thinned so plants stand about a foot apart in the row. You can plant them closer and many gardeners really pack them in, but in my experience you will have more trouble with snails, slugs and earwigs, which are the principal pests of lettuce. I don't like the idea of putting poison baits for these creatures near anything I am going to eat, so I leave more room between the plants so I can keep an eye on them and the sun can dry the soil between the plants, discouraging these moisture-loving pests. It is also very important to keep the area around the lettuce patch free of debris where these creatures can hide and breed: Make it a no-man's land of sorts.

To get lettuce seed to germinate, barely cover it with soil and keep the seed constantly moist, never letting it dry out. In summer, this may mean watering several times a day at first, which may suggest that adding a sprinkler system to your lettuce bed is not too bad an idea. Thin the plants when they are about an inch tall and the danger of being eaten in one gulp by a snail is past.

You can also buy lettuce plants at nurseries, but this almost guarantees that the plants will be bitter since they haven't been kept growing quickly from day one, unless you get the plants the minute they arrive at the nursery. But, then, few vegetables are so easy to grow from seed, and how many times in your life do you actually get to watch the miracle of something growing from a seed, once you've graduated from grade school?

Head lettuce (often called Iceberg) can only be grown in the cooler months, or in the coolness of a coastal climate. Otherwise they need the same care and culture as leaf lettuce: Grow them fast, with lots of water and fertilizer or they will bolt. Bolting is when lettuce sends up a seed stalk, which ruins a head and turns other kinds bitter. Head lettuce must also be spaced at least a foot apart or they won't have the room to form heads. The variety was named "Los Angeles Market," then renamed "Iceberg" by the shipping trade that sent it back east on iced reefers.

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