Lettuce varieties for January, new year, fresh start

Newly germinated lettuce seedlings. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Newly germinated lettuce seedlings.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Maybe you aren’t ready to think about sowing lettuce, but I am! In mid-January we sow a flat of four lettuce varieties, to become our first outdoor transplants. I like to choose four varieties that cover the range of colors and shapes.

Buttercrunch bibb lettuce. Photo Kathleen Slattery

Buttercrunch bibb lettuce. Photo Kathleen Slattery

I also like to choose hardy types that are fast-maturing. Buttercrunch green bibb lettuce is one of my favorites for early spring. One of the Salad Bowl lettuces, red or green, is also usually in my first sowing. The Salad Bowls are so reliable and productive!

Young Salad Bowl lettuce. Photo Bridget Aleshire

Young Salad Bowl lettuce.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

New Red Fire has become another reliable lettuce stand-by for us. It was suggested to me by neighboring Virginia farmer, Gary Scott of Twin Springs Farm. It is more of a leaf lettuce, and doesn’t really head up, although it can be cut as admittedly lightweight heads. And it works fine as a leaf lettuce, to be harvested by the cut-and-come-again method. We grow New Red Fire year round, it’s that adaptable and easy-going.

New Red Fire lettuce. Photo by Bridget Aleshire

New Red Fire lettuce.
Photo by Bridget Aleshire

After last year’s success with Sword Leaf lettuce, which I wrote about last May, we have added this variety to our list of favorite lettuce varieties. But if I start those four, I won’t have a romaine and will have only one red. We haven’t found many good full-size red romaines. Rouge d’hiver is a possibility, although I wonder if it would bolt too easily (it’s more famous for growing in winter). A better choice might be Bronze Arrow (it worked well last year and we were harvesting it in early May).

We expect/intend/plan to start harvesting heads of lettuce outdoors starting 4/15. Before that we will harvesting the lettuce in the greenhouse and the hoophouse.

As you see from the top photo, we grow our outdoor lettuce as bare root transplants, starting in open flats. I’ll write about bare root transplants next week. We find it an easy, forgiving method for many crops.  For now, I’ll just talk about the lettuce. We sow in 3″ deep open wood seed flats, 12″ x 24″. We make four little furrows by pressing a 12″ plastic strip (aka a ruler!) into the seed compost. We sow the seed, label it, cover it lightly, water, then put the seeded flats in our germinator cabinet. The first flat of the year takes about 9 days to germinate. According to tables in Nancy Bubel’s Seed Starter Handbook and in Knott’s Vegetable Growers’ Handbook available free online as a pdf here, lettuce takes 7 days to germinate with a soil temperature of 50F (10C) or 15 days at 41F (5C), and only 4 days at 59F (15C).

Once the seedlings are big enough to handle, we spot them out into 4″ deep flats (also 12″ x 24″). We have a plywood dibble board with pegs evenly spaced about 2.5″ apart. You can see the offset pattern in this next photo:

Lettuce seedlings spotted out into deep flats. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Lettuce seedlings spotted out into deep flats.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

We aim to harden off the lettuce for two weeks in the cold frame before transplanting into the garden beds with thick rowcover on hoops to protect the lettuce from the still-cold outdoors. To be ready for harvest 4/15, these seeds have to become full size lettuces in 88 chilly days.

We make a second sowing on 1/31. The intervals between sowings at the beginning of the year are long, because later sowings will to some extent catch up with earlier ones. Almost all crops grow faster in warmer weather (up to a point). We sow lettuce twice in February (every 14 days), then every 10 days in March, reducing the interval down to every 6 or 7 days by the summer.

As far as varieties go, we think of The Lettuce Year as having 5 seasons: Early Spring January – March, Spring April 1 – May 15, Summer May 15 – Aug 15, fall August 15 – September 7 and Winter September 8 till the end of September and our break from sowing lettuce.

Some of the early spring lettuce varieties will bolt prematurely here if sown after March 31. Examples include Bronze Arrow, Freckles, Merlot, Midnite Ruffles, Oscarde and Panisse.

Others that we like in early spring go on to be useful in spring too. All the ones mentioned as possibilities for sowing #1 are in this category, as are Green Forest, Parris Island, Kalura (three green romaines), Nancy and Sylvesta (two big green bibbs), Pirat (a red bibb), and Star Fighter (a green leaf lettuce)

Freckles lettuce has to be sown here before the end of March, or it bolts prematurely. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Freckles lettuce has to be sown here before the end of March, or it bolts prematurely.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

What’s still standing after two nights below 0F?

Recently I reported on which crops were still alive after two nights at 14F (-10C) and What’s still alive after two nights at 4F?  We’ve now had the Polar Vortex, which brought us two nights at 4F, on 1/6 and 1/7. Then it got even colder.We got the Big Round 0F 1/22-1/23, then a few nights at 5F or 6F, and then the big insult: -4F on the night of 1/29-30.

What’s still standing?

The Tyee spinach under thick rowcover has sustained big damage, showing as patches of beige dead cells. It will recover. Meanwhile we can eat from the more-protected spinach in the coldframes and the hoophouse.

The Vates  kale without rowcover is still alive, but badly damaged. The big leaves are crunchy and brown round the edges, and some of the inner leaves are dead. I hope it will grow back, but we won’t be able to pick that for a while. The Beedy’s Camden kale looks worse – the big leaves have died and flopped over. Not sure if it will recover.

Many of our strawberry plants look dead – very disappointing!

Our hardneck garlic and Polish White softneck tops are killed back to about one inch up from the mulch. Equally hardy, it seems. 

We had the remains of a lettuce nursery bed, still holding surplus transplants from September sowings that we didn’t need for our greenhouse or hoophouse. After the 4F assault we still had life in the centers of the Winter Marvel, North Pole, Tango, Green Forest. Now only the Winter Marvel shows any signs of life. So that variety gets the prize for cold-tolerance here!

Red Round Turnip. Photo Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

Red Round Turnip.
Photo Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

In the hoophouse, we covered all the beds with thick rowcover every night it looked like dropping below 10F inside. Almost everything survived – we only got some minor stem freezing on some turnips and Asian greens. We have been eating Pak Choy, Tokyo Bekana, Yukina Savoy, various turnips and their greens (Hakurei, White Egg, Oasis, Red Round), also plenty of lettuce leaves, radishes, scallions, and some spinach. We lost our second sowing of spinach in there to over watering and flooding, and we are really noticing the lack right now. We’re short on spinach. We have small amounts of mizuna, Ruby Streaks, Bright Lights chard, Bulls Blood beets to add to salad mixes, and Red Russian and White Russian kale growing slowly.

In January we have taken to sowing spinach, kale and collards in a hoophouse bed to transplant outdoors in early spring. We back this up with sowing some in flats if we don’t get good emergence for some reason. This year emergence is late. Is it just late, or is there a problem? We’re holding our breath for a few more days. . .

GFM_February2014_cover_300pxWe are not the only people tracking the effects of the unusually cold weather. The February Growing for Market magazine opens with an article by Ben Hartman “Testing the Limits of Cold Tolerance”. He farms in Goshen, Indiana, using two double-layer plastic greenhouses heated to 30F (yes. I said heated!) and two unheated. They planted kale, carrots, spinach, salad greens and arugula in their greenhouses for winter harvest. Their outdoor temperatures fell to -16F on 1/6 and 1/7. I imagine they’ve had worse since. They used mid-weight rowcover over their beds. Ben reports that baby greens and young spinach survived, as did their rosemary and their 3 fig trees (all farmers deserve some thrills!). They lost baby salad greens that had already been cut previously (all those cut edges didn’t do well). Crops in the outer beds were lost. The tips of full-grown kale leaves froze, but the plants survived.

In their unheated, single-skin plastic hoophouses, the soil froze down to 4″. They used two layers of mid-weight rowcover suspended over the crops. Despite this cold,  tiny salad greens less than 1″ tall survived. Spinach survived under just one layer of rowcover. The carrot tops froze and the roots may or may not be marketable. The (uncovered) fully mature kale looks dead. The mature salad with two layers of rowcover didn’t survive.

From this experience, Ben points out that salad greens and spinach less than 1″ tall are very cold-tolerant. Spinach and kale once larger, benefit from more protection than they got this time. Beware the outer beds!

My own article in this issue is about matching crop spacing with desired goals, such as maximum yield, optimum size, or convenience for cultivation.

Andrew Mefford has written some greenhouse tips for hoophouse growers, including tomato grafting, trellising. Chris Blanchard has written the second part of his piece on growing herbs – this is about harvest and maintenance. Erin Benzakain has undertaken a 59-variety trial of celosia.