In the Garden:
Mid-Atlantic
March, 2003
Regional Report

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Lettuce in living color at the 2003 Philadelphia Flower Show.

And What Color is Your Lettuce?

"What color is your food?" the nutritionist asked the class.

Apparently, not colorful enough if you classify iceberg lettuce, ketchup, and French fries as vegetables in your efforts to "strive for five," let alone the more generous ten fruit/vegetable servings a day recommended in Canada.

Apparently, we should increase not only our vitamin and mineral intake by eating fruits and veggies, but bump up our phytochemicals, too, meaning chemicals from plants. ("Phyto," in Latin, means plant.)

How should we do that? Now it gets fun. Eat colorful foods! Eat each of these colors daily: blue/purple (e.g., blueberries, dried plums), orange/yellow (oranges, winter squash), red (tomatoes, red apples), green (spinach, zucchini), white (mushrooms, parsnips). If you manage to eat like this, I promise you will eat a wider range of foods than normal. Your plate will look like a rainbow, too.

Indoors and Early
All this was fresh in my mind when I perused the spring seed racks at the garden center. Iceberg lettuce does not grow well at home. I enjoy the gourmet greens in restaurants but balk at paying six dollars a pound for them at the grocery store. But I could be growing them. Lettuce and other greens can be grown under lights or in the garden. Most varieties enjoy cool weather, and seeds and transplants can be set out about a month before the last expected frost date.

Varieties
'Black Seeded Simpson' is an oldy but goody, a mild green leafy lettuce despite the name. 'Oak Leaf' performs relatively well in hot weather. 'Red Sails' and 'Ruby' are pretty in the salad bowl and taste like lettuce despite the red coloring. You'll find Cos (Romaine) varieties, too. So far so good. Now for the blends labeled gourmet lettuce or sometimes, mesclun. Hmmm. A little bit of everything. Besides mixed lettuces, spicy blends seem to add the European favorite, arugula (or rocket) along with endive and chicory, while milder blends might typically add some Asian cabbage and occasionally a bit of chard or beet and so on. Nothing too scary there. Lots of color!

Harvest and Enjoy
When you plant your lettuce blend, shake the packet so the varieties mix together, or custom mix your own. You can eat the thinnings to extend the harvest time, or you can snip off the larger outer leaves one by one, leaving the plant in place to keep growing. You can also shear the plants with scissors, leaving the root and crown in place to regrow. Shearing can be done just a few times, then the plants become exhausted. Old greens and greens under heat stress will bolt (send up a stalk and try to flower). This usually coincides with the onset of bitterness and signals the end of harvest. So, munch away!


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