Dr. Grow: Valentine's Day a good time to plant lettuce

Wednesday, February 4, 2009
FRED LYNCH ~ flynch@semissourian.com
These varieties of lettuce seeds are the tip of the iceberg of what gardeners can pick to grow.

Until I got involved in gardening, Valentine's Day always evoked images of hearts, chocolates, Hallmark cards, a dozen roses and a sweetheart to give them to. Sorry, sweetheart, but you're going to have to share. Valentine's Day really means it's the start of vegetable gardening season because Feb. 14 you must plant lettuce seed.

If you go to a garden center, you may be surprised at the number of varieties of lettuce seed for sale. So I thought I might give you a short primer on lettuce.

Most lettuces are members of the Aster family. There are four groups of lettuces generally grown in the United States. Within each group you will find several varieties that vary in leaf shape, color, texture and taste.

Crisphead lettuces form a tight, firm head (the leaves fold over each other) that may be 6 to 10 inches in diameter. You often find these heads of lettuce in your favorite grocery store. Some of the more common varieties are Iceberg, Mission, Great Lakes, Nevada and Ithaca.

Butterhead lettuces have a smaller head with leaves that are loosely packed together. The inner leaves often have a light yellow color due to lack of light impinging on the leaves. The leaves also have a buttery flavor. Familiar varieties are Buttercrunch and Bibb.

Romaine or Cos lettuces have an upright form that grows 8 to 9 inches tall. They have a strong white midrib with medium green foliage to the margins. Their flavors are said to be sweeter than other lettuce types. The most common varieties are Parris Island and Cos.

Although the above varieties can be grown in Southeast Missouri and Southern Illinois gardens, more local gardeners plant leaf or bunching varieties on Valentine's Day. These varieties form loose heads called bunches. They come in all shapes and colors. The most commonly grown varieties are Black Seeded Simpson, Salad Bowl, Salad Bowl Red, Ruby, Green Ice, Red Sails, Oakleaf, Grand Rapids and Prizehead.

If you are going to plant on Valentine's Day, work up the soil in your garden as best you can. Plant seed sparingly and cover it with only 1/4 to 1/2 inches of soil. You may want to cover the area or row with a grow cover. If you seed in a small area, you can cover it with glass and create a hot bed. Plant every two to three weeks in order to have a good lettuce supply for your salads over a period of time.

As the seed emerges, thin the seedlings so they are spaced 3 to 4 inches apart. (The tender plantlets are tasty in a salad.) Give them plenty of room to grow. Fertilize the seedlings with a high phosphorous fertilizer such as 9-59-8 in order to encourage good root system development. Two to three weeks later, fertilize with a vegetable garden fertilizer such as 11-15-11 with micronutrients.

Usually within 45 to 50 days, you can harvest the leaves individually or pull up a whole loose bunch. Clean the leaves and enjoy a good healthy salad during your evening meal.

I used to think of lettuce as rabbit food. Today I have found out this healthy food is good for you. Lettuce is a great source of fiber, important for regulating digestion and reducing blood sugar levels. It is also a good source of vitamins A, B9, C and K. It is a low-calorie, filling food.

Although I am writing about planting on Valentine's Day, you can also plant throughout the year and into late fall. All the varieties I mentioned can also be planted in the fall.

If you are planting in late spring, you may want to plant Parris Island because it tolerates heat better than other varieties. Some other heat-tolerant varieties are Red Oakleaf, Red Salad Bowl, Summertime, Nevada Salad Bowl and Romaine.

This Valentine's Day, give your sweetheart some chocolates, a card and a dozen roses. Then go outside, dig in the dirt and start your bed of lettuce so you can enjoy that healthy salad in a month and a half.

Send your gardening and landscape questions to Paul Schnare at P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, Mo. 63702-0699 or by e-mail to news@semissourian.com.

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