Headstrong About Lettuce

THE REAL DIRT

March 28, 1993|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Help! I'm being harassed by the Lettuce Police, who don't like the greens that I'm growing.

The Lettuce Police left a note, which I found among my spring garden supplies. Tucked into a box filled with seeds was this message, written in adolescent scrawl:

"Plant iceberg lettuce or die! Signed, the Lettuce Police."

Egad. I've never been the target of underground terrorists, save for a mole or two. I would have contacted the authorities, except the note bore a happy face sticker.

Aha! It turns out the Lettuce Police is really my daughter, Beth, who, for some untold reason, likes iceberg lettuce -- those pale green, tasteless, cellophaned cannonballs sold in supermarkets. In fact, Beth wants to try to grow iceberg lettuce.

Not in our ZIP code, she won't. I despise iceberg lettuce and the commercial agribusiness it represents. I would not eat the tip of an iceberg leaf. I would rather cover the garden with concrete than cultivate a single head of iceberg.

I am adamant about this. But Beth is just as determined to grow the stuff.

Frankly, I don't see the need to argue the merits of one lettuce when there are 800 varieties from which to choose. There are leaf lettuces with loose, crisp rosettes of red and green; butterheads with soft, crumpled leaves; and romaines, whose long, spoon-shaped leaves make Caesar salads.

All are easier to grow, sweeter and more nutritious than crisphead lettuces, the group to which iceberg belongs. Alas, crispheads are the only salad greens known to many health-conscious Americans, who consume nearly 30 pounds of lettuce each year.

Ours was not the first nation to embrace this leafy vegetable. Man has cultivated lettuce for almost 3,000 years. A native of central Europe, lettuce was prized by the ancient Egyptians and later cultivated in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in 800 B.C.

The Greeks so loved their lettuce that, prior to harvest, they poured vinaigrettes on the garden plants to further enhance the flavorful greens.

The Romans also gave lettuce high marks. They bred lettuces that grew so tall that the plants required trellising, like roses. One Roman emperor, Diocletian, actually surrendered his throne return to the countryside and tend his beloved lettuces.

Historically, lettuce has always impressed the right people. In the Middle Ages, many a pope prayed for rain to nourish the lettuce in his private garden.

When Christopher Columbus reached the West Indies, he knelt and kissed the ground. Then he carved out a garden plot and planted lettuce for his hungry crew.

Leaf lettuce, a quick-maturing crop, matures in 40 days if given ample light, rich soil and plenty to drink. The plants, which are 95 percent water themselves, need 1 inch of moisture per week. (Lettuce means milky in Latin, and was named for the whitish fluid in its stem.)

Poor harvests are often traced to human error: gardeners who are tardy either in planting or thinning lettuce. Seed sown in early spring should produce several crops before bolting and turning bitter in hot weather. Late plantings may yield nothing.

Lettuce needs plenty of elbow room (at least 6 inches between plants), space which is sadly lacking in many beds. Some gardeners perceive thinning as the kiss of death for their lettuce plants, when really the opposite is true. Crowded plants promote disease and produce little for the dinner table.

My taste in lettuce runs the gamut, from velvety Buttercrunch to colorful Red Sails, and from handsome Oakleaf to frilly Green Ice, which is more heat-tolerant than most lettuces. The prettiest ones aren't always the sweetest.

All told, I expect to plant six varieties this spring. Seven, if the Lettuce Police gets her way.

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