Above is an example of one of the cages we use to try to exclude
deer. We don't have nearly enough of these cages - so we lose some
to the deer on and off as it is. In this cage is a mix of heirloom
variety lettuce that we grew in 2008.
A few terms or notes for the interested:
Heads of lettuce: When we refer to 'heads'
of lettuce, we are referring to ONE plant. We are not claiming that
the variety is a head lettuce. Most of our varieties are looseleaf,
butterhead, crisphead, batavian or romaine. Do not confuse this term with
the heads of lettuce that are in the iceberg family (something we
do not grow).
Holding qualities in the field: When
we make a note that a variety holds well in the field, we are indicating
that plants will be of harvestable quality over a longer period of time without bolting or getting bitter.
Some types, such as Gold Rush, tend to need picking over a short
period of time once they reach mature size. Others, such as Crispmint,
can easily maintain quality for periods up to three weeks. Many lettuces will hold in the Fall during the shorter days and cooler weather. Holding quality is shorter in the Summer months.
Bolting: Lettuce is said to 'bolt' when
the plant begins to tower (or get tall with a heavy stem) in an
effort to produce seed. For many varieties, bolting occurs when
the weather is too warm for the cultivar. In some cases bolting
will be promoted when plants are too close or weed pressure is high.
Competition can force bolting. Lettuce that 'bolts' typically has
a taste that is more bitter than lettuce that has not bolted. This
does not mean the lettuce is not edible, it just means that taste
is not at a peak and may not be tolerable for many persons. Some
lettuces, such as Grandpa Admires and Australian Yellow Leaf, tend
to have thicker stalks and may give the appearance of bolting before
the quality is greatly changed. We often will taste a variety in the field prior to picking it to make sure it does not have a bitter aftertaste. If it does, we will use that as a benchmark to determine which others of that type are no longer marketable. The good news is that turkeys and chickens like lettuce even after it has bolted or gotten bitter.
Lettuce Growing Hints:
- We prefer starting our plants in flats and then we transplant
them. From our perspective, this saves us time in the form of
labor and insures a better crop for each planting. If you have
a home garden, direct seeding is fine - but you need to be prepared
to thin your planting AND be deligent about weeding when plants
are at seedling stage. For our scale, we find thinning and weeding
at seedling stage to be too labor intensive to maintain.
- On the other hand, persons who grow microgreens or salad mixes might find that direct seeding is preferable to transplants. In that case, you need to watch the soil temperature. If it gets too warm, you will want to abstain from planting the seed.
- Stagger plantings of lettuce to extend your season. We start
new flats every two weeks during the growing season. Our plantings get closer together in the Fall when one week can mean greater differences in maturity dates.
- Don't forget to grow some lettuce for harvest in the fall. Fall
lettuce can be some of the sweetest since the plants are 'finishing'
during cool weather rather than 'starting' in the cool and finishing
in warmer weather.
- Many varieties can overwinter with a little bit of cover help. Get your plants to about two or three inches in height, but try to avoid getting them bigger than that. They will begin to grow again in March once the days lengthen. Often, plants will be full size by April.
- We like to plant our lettuce in beds that are the size of a walk behind tiller width (a little over 2 feet wide). We plant two rows and plants are put in about 4-5 inches apart within rows.
- Summer plantings can benefit from afternoon shade. The picture above shows a planting to the East of sunflowers. The trick is finding an optimal spacing between these two items.
Lettuce Harvest Ideas:
- Use a sharp knife to cut your lettuce at the bottom of the 'head'.
A clean cut may encourage regrowth in some varieties (if that
interests you). We use a double edged lettuce knife and don't
know what we did without it in the past.
- Get your greens in out of the sun as quickly as you can to avoid
- Immerse your greens in cold water (we have a deep well) as soon
as possible. Leave them in the water for at least 30 minutes to
get the field heat out of the crop. Get as much water out of the
plant as you can without getting too agressive on removal from
the bath. Some people will use 'salad spinner' equipment to spin
the water out of the plants. We keep our lettuce heads intact
and find that they are hold well even without spinning. We will occassionally pull apart the head if cleaning necessitates it - especially if there is an aphid hatching.
One of our favorites to grow, harvest and eat. This variety is
more heat tolerant than most, so it usually appears in our CSA shares
in July and even August. It also grows just fine in the fall, but
it tends to have much more red in it at that time and is much more
compact. The taste is likely a bit sweeter in the Fall as well. Large leaves
with a softer texture. Excellent for sandwiches. If it gets a little
'wilty' in the fridge after a week, revive it with a quick soak
in cold water. If you don't like softer lettuces, you won't like Grandpa Admires. If you don't like 'harder' lettuce textures, you'll love this one. We were surprised how well this variety did in the high tunnel, with decent heads holding until December. We have not tried to overwinter this variety.
Crispmint is our all season romaine. It holds up pretty well in
the summer months, though the edges might brown. We've overwintered
these under a low-tunnel (plastic) and they take off once the weather
warms in March. These produce big (1/2 to 1 lb) heads that are very
crisp. CSA members have given a strong 'thumbs up' on taste for
this variety since it was introduced. There are claims that the
leaves get sweeter the closer to the center you get - and like most
romaines, that can be ALOT of leaves. A reliable crop, enjoyable
to pick, impressive to put on the market/CSA table and they hold
in the field extremely well. This is one we most highly recommend
for all purposes. We have noticed that romaines at full size do not hold as well in a high tunnel, with outer leaves breaking and dying and inner leaves freezing and staying frozen. It's in the nature of the plant. But, small plants will overwinter just fine.
Like most lettuces, Bronze Arrowhead does well in the cooler months
(in fact, we have picked this variety as late as December 10 in the field). However,
it does tend to handle warmer weather well and it holds in the field.
That makes this variety one of our early summer (last June/early
July, late August/early September) lettuce crops. Nice looseleaf
that has varying degrees of red/bronze coloration dependent on the
weather during its growth. Taste is variable, with a stronger taste
in summer months that many (but not all) persons will appreciate.
If you cut it just above ground level, it will grow back. Second
flush of leaves will not 'head' and has a stronger taste. But, if
you want to extend your lettuce season without multiple plantings,
this will do the trick. This one handled the cold weather in the high tunnel extremely well and will overwinter under cover is you get them to about 2 inches tall in the fall. We're not finding many limitations on this variety. We do find that the Seed Savers strain seems to be most reliable.
Australian Yellow Leaf
This is one of our summer lettuces that is very slow to bolt and
produces very impressive heads with very large leaves. Soft leaves,
generally mild flavor. This, and Grandpa Admires are two lettuces
that are fun to grow, beautiful to look at, can get some
good size (so make sure you transplant with a little extra space
- or thin - to prevent bolting), and if you put transplants in rather
than direct seeding, you can get very nice reliable crops. We have
noticed that heavy rains or winds tend to make these plants look
"sad" with the large outer leaves laying down (on the
ground or drooping). At this point, you need to pick this crop before
the leaves lose their quality. They will look fine (and taste great)
once picked, soaked and given a quick shake to get the leaves to
realign (one of the things you can do with a soft leaf). If left
too long, you can still pick the smaller leaves off the top. The
lower leaves will lose their marketability (but will taste good
enough in your own salad).
Amish Deer Tongue
This lettuce is a little harder to describe because it is very
different than many we grow. The leaves have a spinach-like texture,
and that texture suggests spinach enough that some people might
detect a hint of spinach taste. But, we're not sure if that's inferred
or actual. The taste and texture are just different enough that
they add interest to a salad with more commonly known lettuces.
Plants are compact and tough. Probably a better cool season lettuce
as they don't hold long in warmer weather. Note:
don't plant too close or you'll get tall/thin plants that aren't
as full as they can or should be. Crowding do to overplanting or weeds will encourage bolting. And, unlike other lettuce, storm
damaged leaves don't just 'melt' away as the plant grows through
the damage. As a result, storm damaged plants are often difficult
to market because of their looks. We expected these to do well in the high tunnel and they did do well enough. But, like a romaine, they don't unfreeze like looseleaf lettuces might. So, target them for November to early December (at the latest) in Iowa, but don't try to push it too far or you lose quality. A good variety to add for different texture and taste in the salad.
This romaine type lettuce was a late add in 2008 and gave us some
excellent production. Very attractive heads of lettuce with a distinctive
romaine taste that is requested by many of our CSA customers. We
have received excellent reviews for use in larger kitchens. If we
wanted to process a large number of red lettuce leaves for a gathering,
we would find these to be one of the easiest to work with. These
romain heads aren't as full as some. In fact, this is a trademark
of this romaine/cos variety. It holds it's leaves in a loose 'head'
and is not dense as many have come to expect when you say "romaine
lettuce." From a market perspective, they don't always stand
out on the table as much as other varieties. On the other hand,
the individual leaves are almost always attractive and the taste
holds very well. We don't recommend trying to force this variety to grow outside of the normal Spring/Fall plantings. It has not shown great flexibility outside of the season, but we admit that we haven't experimented with Rouge D'hiver much either.
A beautiful spotted leaf romaine that does a great job in the early
summer months. Hitting the timing for a fall planting is a bit trickier
than some. These produce full and often heavy (1#) heads of lettuce.
They grow well during the summer - but you do have to watch to make
sure they don't show signs of bolting - once they show any sign
of it - they're going to go through the bolting process within 24-36
hours. Excellent all-around romaine. We have found that this lettuce
may need an education component for sales. The brownish/purple spots
are often misconstrued as 'bad spots' on the lettuce - much to the
detriment of the seller (and the buyer who doesn't bother to ask,
taste, or otherwise check out this variety). Once tried, people
will ask specifically for this one. We did notice that this romaine handled life in the high tunnel better in December than the other varieties. It also overwintered well (get them to about 2-3 inches tall around Nov 5 and they'll hold there).
French Batavia type
Pablo has rapidly become a favorite of ours. This variety forms
loose heads as they approach maturity, but can be harvested younger
as a leaf lettuce. They are longer season (60 to 70 days) and hold very well in
the field. The biggest thing this variety has going for it is the
taste. Many people reported taking tastes of the lettuce head as
they prepared a salad, only to find that the entire head was eaten
before the salad was fully prepared. Beautiful plants with big outer
'loose' leaves and a moderate sized 'head.' You can plant these
relatively close and not have to worry about bolting. The only 'knock'
on these plants is the relative fragility of the stems on the transplants.
As a result, you will benefit from avoiding overcrowding each tray
cell (so you don't have to tease seedlings apart and risk breaking
them). If you direct seed, then you have to be careful about accidently
breaking plants you want to keep when you thin. Good response to high tunnel growing in the fall. Not necessarily the best candidate to overwinter. These can also be a little harder to clean and prepare since they hold alot of water in the center.
This one is definitely a colder season lettuce. Once the daylight
hours get longer and the weather gets warmer, it tends to bolt quicker than many of our varieties.
On the plus side, it is very cold tolerant and doesn't show much
damage after overnight freezes. It can be overwintered if covered
and is a good candidate for late fall planting for early spring
emergence. Very ruffled, light green leaves. Very attractive on
sandwiches or salads. Tends to have a 'firmer' texture. Heads don't hold together as well as some varieties, but that means you won't get as much stalk as you will with others. Reasonably good high tunnel production in the fall. It is possible that they will hold longer than others, but they were all picked before we could test that theory. We did find that they host aphids better than most lettuces - even though it takes a while before the leaves are damaged. We have also noted that seed does not keep very well. So, don't buy too much extra and expect to use it the next season.
Red Salad Bowl
Red Salad Bowl and Grandpa Admires were two of the first heirlooms with
which we had early success. We are convinced that Red Salad Bowl
is at its absolute best in the fall - though early spring crops
are also good. This variety has survived winters under cover and
was picked as late as Thanksgiving in the field when it was given just
a little row cover help. Frilly, deeply notched leaves that make
a nice aesthetic companion with Gold Rush in a salad. It is not
recommended that you try this during warmer parts of the season
as its taste is not as good as in the fall. While it is supposed
to resist bolting, we don't feel it holds as well as many other
lettuces. Red Salad Bowl is an excellent candidate to overwinter under protection. Two to three inch tall plants maintain size until the weather warms in late February. We have been able to pick full sized heads in mid-April and full sized heads maintain quality into the high tunnel until Christmas.
Reine des Glaces (Ice Queen)
French Batavia type
This is one of the prettiest lettuces we grow. Combine the fresh,
light green color with the serrated edges of the outer leaves and
compact loose head in the center and it looks magnificent. Texture
is a bit crisper than some and these will hold well in the crisper.
This variety did reasonably well in the summer months. Make sure
you do not crowd this variety and keep the tall weeds away. Otherwise,
these will lose their quality by "towering/bolting." Taste is good, but doesn't tend to stand out - but it has some tough competition in this group. It would do well against other varieties. Germination rates for seed seems to decline rapidly, so we get new seed each year and don't try to overwinter unused seed for the following season. We prefer to grow Ice Queen in the standard lettuce growing slots in Spring and Fall and we don't push the envelope too far into Summer or Winter.
Like Forellenschus (speckled trout) this lettuce has reddish brown spots. However, it is not a romaine. We used this variety in 2007 and 2008 with success, then the seed disappeared. We were pleased to see it reappear in 2012. Suffice it to say, things on our farm have changed a great deal since we grew it last so we are reevaluating where this lettuce fits. Give us 2013 to have a more informed opinion about it.
Mustard: Green Wave - the only green mustard we have tried. But, it is truly a pretty plant and produces extremely well in the fall. Grows very quickly in Spring. Nice peppery taste. A stronger green that some might not like and others will love. The taste mellows with cooking. Reliable crops.
Mustard: Red Giant - these appeared in the Fall of 2012 for the first time. They grow just a little slower than Green Wave, but not by much. Leaves are a little 'tougher' and sparser on the plant, which is not necessarily a bad quality. When combined with Green Wave, they look wonderful. Complimentary mustard taste between the two.
Arugula: Apollo - a reasonbly mild arugula that seems to maintain a good quality even if the leaves get a bit bigger. This variety was not as readily avialable in 2012, which forced us to try others. We like the size of the plants since we tend to prefer harvesting larger greens rather than the smaller ones. Plants do a nice job of shading out weeds.
Arugula: Astro - we ran trials in 2012 and liked how Astro performed. Leaves are not consistently the same type with some looking more like Sylvetta with the notching and others like Apollo with no notching. We will run Apollo and Astro in 2013 and compare tastes.
||Swiss Chard: Improved Rainbow Mix - we are only now beginning to appreciate chard and its flexibility. The white tends to grow fastest and orange seems to be least frequent. We may consider growing a second variety to increase our knowledge in this area - but we are perfectly happy with what we get with this one for the present.
Collards: Champion - these are probably an easier crop to grow in the fall, but we'll keep trying to find the timing for Spring. Champion came recommended and we have not been disappointed with it. If the desire for collards increases in our area, we will do more experimenting with varieties. But, for now, a single variety that does the job is enough.
Spinach: Bloomsdale - This is our favored variety. And, contrary to what we do with many vegetables, the only variety we currently grow. For a period of time, we grew other varieties, but Bloomsdale is most consistent in our soil and on our farm. It overwinters exceptionally well and has an excellent taste and texture. As with most spinach, it will bolt under weed pressure and in heat. Temps over 80 degrees Fahrenheit with any regularity tends to encourage it to go to seed. Fall harvested spinach is particularly sweet.
Other greens we have tried:
Yugoslavian Red was introduced on our farm in 2010. The results are not sufficient for us to say much about it. We can say that it is prone to bolting for any number of reasons (weed pressure, too much water, heat, plants too old in trays before transplant). We did manage to get a batch to overwinter in the high tunnel easily. The heads look magnificent and pick well. Clearly, these like drier, colder situations. On the other hand, we find its taste does not compete with the other varieties we grow. But, we also realize everyone has different tastes - and perhaps some folks will like this one. Certainly not horrible - but when you have extremely good tasting varieties to compete against... And, after giving it a second run in 2011 (we rarely give a trial only one year) we dropped it. Again, it bolted with little provocation. Head sizes were small and taste did not stand out. We wonder if those who grow salad mixes might like it more since they are not looking for full sized heads of lettuce?
Lettuce : Red Leprechaun - poor germination rates took this one off of our list. The romaine heads were huge and very attractive. But, when you plant a tray with 72 cells and get four plants... Maybe it was a bad seed batch?
Lettuce : Slobolt - A light green leaf lettuce that is supposed to be slow to bolt. We didn't think so.
Spinach :America - We're not sure if it is just us, but we really didn't notice enough difference between Bloomsdale and America to make us carry both. Bloomsdale seems a bit more consistent for us and bolts more slowly, so we went with Bloomsdale. Financially, the farm can save a little money if it buys more of one variety in bulk than less of two varieties. Still, we like diversity and will keep our eyes open. If you like America, good for you. It seems like a fine variety. It just lost in a head to head on our farm is all.
Arugula: Sylvetta - a lower growing arugula that covers the ground rapidly. Leaves are smaller and are heavily notched. If we were into growing microgreens or salad mixes, I suspect we would like it more. However, it seemed to us that the leaves were mostly stem and that didn't fit what we tend to like about arugula. Feedback from CSA members was neutral, so there didn't seem to be a need to keep it on board for 2013.