Three packets of seed will see you in salad leaves all summer long, and six will give you enough for all your family garden parties and picnics too.
Have you ever, in a hurry or wanting to serve a pretty salad to your guests, bought a supermarket bag of rocket or lambs lettuce and felt sad and guilty soon afterwards? The expense, the packaging, the tiny quantity and the sodden, decaying mess even hours later betray the mean commercialism of the product. However, help is at hand.
If you choose, for example, a packet each of Little Gem, Salad Bowl and Webbs lettuce seeds, costing four pounds in total, you will be able to keep a family of four or five in salad leaves from late March to October and, with a little luck and careful planning, you can set up some over winter boxes to see you through until the new season. Add some Lambs Lettuce, Romana Bionda and Rocket and you will have variety and spice as well as extra quantity. In my experience, lettuce seed retains good viability for several years, if kept cool and dry, so none will be wasted if you have some left over.
Take a deep plastic or wooden box: I recycle the ones used for delivering oranges and other greengrocery to our school kitchen but you will find many others that are suitable, remembering to punch holes in the bottom with a fork if necessary, for drainage. Aim for a depth of at least eight centimetres or the width of your palm.
Fill the box with whatever growing medium you have to hand; I save a lot of money by using mostly home made compost, a layer of cheap sand or grit and a topping of commercial compost to keep the weed seeds in the dark. Write the name of the first type of seed on a plastic label and make a shallow groove with it in the compost along the middle of the box. Take a pinch of seed from the packet and sprinkle evenly along the groove – this will be plenty.
Repeat with the other two types, spaced evenly between the middle and the sides of the box – this will make three rows. Water gently but thoroughly. Cover, if the weather is especially hot or dry, with anything, even newspaper; I like to use transparent packaging such as mushroom or tomato boxes as mini cloches. Germination will take about a week depending upon the weather. Indoors or out is fine for almost all lettuce and they positively enjoy cold nights. Water cautiously; covered boxes will not need much.
Watch carefully: you want to catch the moment when the little seedlings have fully extended their first two (primary) leaves and the proper characteristic leaves can be seen forming between. They should seem like rather crowded rows by now.
Water the box well and, using an old fashioned table fork, ease out a little clump of seedlings leaving the last one in the row. Leave one seedling and take out another forkful, and so on, such that you have perhaps ten seedlings a fork width apart left in the row.
The objective is now to space the seedlings out, giving you nine rows out of your original three. Handling by the primary leaves only (because these are expendable – the proper leaves cost the plant more energy, damaged roots will set it back and a crushed or broken stem is the end of it), pick up one seedling at a time in one hand. With the other hand make little holes with your pencil, on either side of the original row, and carefully drop the lettuce in, gently pushing soil in to drag the roots well down, burying a little deeper than before to be sure of stability. You will have room for a new row on each side of the first one and so, when you have finished, there will be nine in all as in the boxes on the right.
After a week these seedlings will have grown enthusiastically to fill the space provided; see the difference in the boxes on the left. Spare seedlings can be put in tiny pots as bundles and passed on to friends. In only another week they will be ready for the first cuttings.
You have two choices now: cut a leaf or two from a number of lettuces and they will keep growing for several weeks or cut one entire lettuce in every three or four and the remaining ones will grow bigger. Either way you will have plenty of cuttings over a long period and sometimes even the entirely cut lettuces grow a small crop of leaves again. Eventually the growth becomes tough and bitter ; see The Great Redeemer for what to do with the boxful then.
Sow a box every two weeks for a constant supply.
Allow one of each type of lettuce in each box to keep growing until it produces seed , and experiment with letting them self seed where they stand. I have had great success with Lambs Lettuce, Red Orache, Rocket and American Cress.
You can extend the useful life of the compost in a box by watering with a home made liquid fertiliser (I’ll blog on this soon) and/or by skimming off the top layer and replacing with fresh.
Welsh Onions (bunching perennials) and Ramsoms make a lovely addition to your salad and once in your garden you will have them for ever. I have plenty to give away!