In the Garden:
Middle South
September, 2003
Regional Report

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My first fall sowing of lettuce, a mix of four varieties, is ready to be thinned and mulched.

Let Us Have Lettuce

If you want to grow a satisfying vegetable garden, the first rule is to grow what you like to eat. Most of us eat about 25 pounds of lettuce per year, so it's a top choice for the fall garden. This is the perfect time to sow seeds, because lettuce germinates best in temperatures just above 70 degrees. Once your seedlings are up, a little special care will guarantee a fine crop in only a few weeks.

Thin to Win
To me, the hardest part of growing lettuce is thinning the plants. Leaf-type lettuces need at least 4 inches between plants, butterheads and romaines need 8 inches, and big crispheads won't head well unless they are spaced 12 inches apart. I thin my plants gradually, and eat the thinnings once the plants are 2 inches tall. When the plants are thinned to the spacing they need, I mulch between them with a thin layer of grass clippings, which helps keep the soil cool and moist.

Food and Water
Lettuce responds beautifully to frequent light waterings. I water mine in late afternoon, so that the plants have a chance to dry out before nightfall. Damp lettuce attracts slugs.

A light feeding with a water-soluble fertilizer will keep lettuce going strong, too. One feeding, three weeks after planting, is plenty provided the plants are growing in good soil with a slightly acidic pH. Some folks feed their lettuce a second time, but I like to hold off on fertilizer after my plants are 4 inches tall. Eating fertilizer is not my idea of fun! Besides, cool nights improve the flavor and texture of home-grown lettuce so much that my lettuce is close to perfect by early October.

My last tip is to do your lettuce picking in the morning, when the leaves are plumped up with nutrients and water. Lettuce gathered in the morning tastes sweeter, and it tends to keep better in the refrigerator as well.


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