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Lettuce Looms Large in Winter Gardens

No gardener can easily resist planting crispy, tasty and attractive lettuce in the garden or hotbox.

Consider the prolific and ancient lettuce, cultivated since colonial America and over thousands of years in Europe and Asia. It's contemporary, it grows with a minimum of fuss, and it adds a visually pleasing element to any flower or vegetable garden. With over 800 cultivars to choose from, no gardener can easily resist planting some in the garden or hotbox for fresh salad in cool spring and winter months.

The keys to success are grow it fast, crop it regularly, and keep it well watered, mulched and fertilized. Prepare your beds with a healthy dose of organic compost or seasoned manure, turned into the top two inches of soil.  Seeds will need light to germinate, so just gently press them into the soil, or rake them in. Keep the plants thinned to about 10 inches apart. In the deep south, try cultivating your lettuce crop in the cooler months because high summer temperatures will wither it. It can be planted from September through March and harvested in May. Further north, lettuce can generally grow year round but remember that high temperatures can cause bitterness.  You can purchase transplants at the nursery or germinate your own plants. If temperatures drop below freezing, you can save your leafy crop from frost burn by covering with plastic, straw, or cloth. During the growing season, apply a water soluble 20-20-20 fertilizer about every two weeks or so.

Lettuces come in basic varieties defined by their growth and appearance.  These include leaf or loose-leaf types, semi-heading types such as butterhead and romaine, and heading or crisphead types such as iceberg. Try any type and experiment to your heart's desire. Check out the local nursery and you'll find an astonishing array of shapes, sizes and colors. Leaf and loose-leaf lettuces are attractive and easy to grow and their tolerance for higher temperatures makes them a versatile choice for different growing zones and seasons. Their leaves spread apart during growth and form bunches of color ranging from dark red to deep green to pale yellow. Textures vary just as widely. You can have smooth, wrinkled, curled, crinkled, pointed or lobed leaves-something for any palate and presentation on the salad plate. When cropping, remove only the largest leaves. You won't have to wait too long to enjoy the fruits of your labor. Most are ready for harvesting within 40 days of planting.

Other types require different tastes and techniques. Butterhead lettuces are softer and tender. Home-grown butterhead has a distinct advantage over store-bought. Because the leaves can be easily damaged during shipment, the quality can suffer and the cost is higher than other varieties. Fortunately for gardeners, they're easy to grow. Crop butterhead or pick the whole plant when mature. The best lettuce is any lettuce when served just minutes after picking. 

Sources used to create this article include Dan Gill and the New Orleans Times-Picayune.