Lettuce, rejoice

Impatient gardeners, you can speed up the harvest: Plant this cool-weather crop now and near -- in a pot.

March 26, 2006|By SUSAN REIMER | SUSAN REIMER,SUN REPORTER

A lettuce in every pot. It is a practical -- and pretty -- early spring planting idea for gardeners in a hurry to get their hands dirty.

"It is the perfect choice," said gardener Edward Smith, author of Incredible Vegetables from Self-Watering Containers (Storey, 2006, $19.95).

"Lettuce is a cold-tolerant plant that can take even a few degrees of frost," he said. "The seeds germinate much better in cold weather. They are programmed that way."

Container vegetable gardening has taken off since the introduction of large but lightweight pots made of synthetic materials, self-watering containers, and hybridized vegetables created for cramped quarters.

"Lettuces are extremely successful in containers, especially the loose-leaf, non-hearting types, such as Lollo Rossa and Salad Bowl, that can be picked a few leaves at time on a cut-and-come-again basis," said Bob Purnell, author of Container Gardens by Number (Reader's Digest, 2004, $15.95.)

In his book, he provides plans for lettuces in containers and writes, "Colored- and fancy-leaved lettuces are worth growing for their ornamental appeal, but all are good in salads, too. They are an excellent, fast-maturing crop."

Lettuce has the virtue of cold-weather hardiness, which puts containers to use long before the air temperature is warm enough for annuals. Also, lettuces don't require much soil depth.

"My favorite is to put lettuce in a window box. It is small and you can stick it on the porch railing," said Smith. "They grow better, quicker and it is handier."

The ease of harvesting is perhaps the most appealing advantage of growing lettuces in a container on your deck or porch. But container gardening has the added advantage of keeping diseases and pests at arm's length.

If there is a drawback, it is the almost daily watering a container garden requires. That's why Smith recommends self-watering containers, with their substantial reservoirs. They are especially well-suited for lettuces, a thirsty crop that can become bitter if denied water.

When the Mid-Atlantic region heats up, with the big temperature jump that traditionally comes in late May, lettuces planted in the ground will go to seed and become bitter.

But, Smith said, you can fool the lettuce in your deck or patio containers by simply sliding them into a shadier spot.

"It will think that summer hasn't happened yet," he said.

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susan.reimer@baltsun.com

TO LEARN MORE:

For lightweight containers as well as self-watering containers, visit Gardener's Supply at gardeners.com or call 888-833-1412.

For the Earthbox self-watering garden system, visit Homestead Gardens in Davidsonville, 410-798-5000. Or visit earthbox.com or call 888-917-3908.

FOR SEEDS, TRY:

John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds, kitchengardenseeds.com or 860-567-6086.

Burpee, burpee.com or 800-888-1447.

Park's Seeds, parkseed.com or 800-845-3369.

A neighborhood lawn and garden center.

TIPS:

Choose a self-watering container in order to provide a consistent source of water. Or make sure there is excellent drainage -- and a hole -- in the bottom of your ornamental container.

Choose a potting soil prepared specifically for container gardening that allows for quick movement of both air and water. It will most often contain a combination of sphagnum peat moss, limestone and perlite.

Avoid container mixes that have additives to increase water retention. They are called hydrogels and, especially in self-watering containers, will cause the soil to become waterlogged.

Consider adding some compost and a balanced organic fertilizer (such as 5-5-5).

You will want a dense planting, so scatter the seeds to achieve a coverage of a seed every half-inch or so.

Because lettuce seeds are so small, they should be close to the soil surface, just barely covered by planting mix.

Keep the seeds moist -- never sopping wet, but never dry.

Among the best choices for planting are loose-leaf lettuces, such as Red Salad Bowl or Lolla Rossa or Cardinale, or loose heads, such as Blushed Butter Oak, or Buttercrunch.

Iceberg, and other lettuces that produce tight heads, are not as successful in containers.

The rusty color of Red Salad Bowl and the chartreuse of Black-Seeded Simpson provide a dynamic color contrast, while the spiky quality of Oakleaf lettuces provide a contrast in texture.

Consider other salad greens, such as arugula, spinach and mesclun, which is a combination of diverse colors and shapes, or Asian greens, such as baby bok choy and mizuna.

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