Starfighter: Lettuce Variety of the Month

Star Fighter lettuce. Photo Johnnys Selected Seeds
Starfighter lettuce.
Photo Johnnys Selected Seeds

A couple of weeks ago, in May, I wrote about Sword Leaf lettuce. I think I’m embarking on a Lettuce of the Month set of blog posts. Recently I’ve been admiring and enjoying Starfighter lettuce from Johnnys Selected Seeds. This one is also new to us this year. It is very attractive, shiny and a compact upright shape. Normally I avoid any vegetables advertised as  “compact”, as it seems to be merely catalog-speak for “small”.  Small is fine (and even desirable) if you are selling lettuce to people living in small households, or people who don’t actually eat much salad. But at Twin Oaks we are growing for our cooks who are supplying meals for 100, and bigger vegetables make for faster veggie prep.

Anyway, not to worry with Starfighter, it’s no lightweight. Compact means compact – the lettuce is a medium size and the leaves are densely packed. Plenty of lettuce per plant! It’s 52 days from sowing to maturity. It claims to have good disease resistance, especially to downy mildew. It also resists the Nasonovia ribisnigri aphid. We don’t seem to have those, so I’m not speaking from experience.

So far, we sowed Starfighter twice, on February 28 (our 4th sowing) and March 26 (our 6th sowing). These were both sown in the greenhouse and later transplanted out. Both plantings were very good in appearance, yield and flavor. We’re currently harvesting our 8th sowing of lettuce. You can see our outdoor Lettuce Log here.

Starfighter has claims to be heat tolerant, which we will be testing out. Tolerant to Maine heat is not the same as tolerant to Virginia heat. I was happy to note that it receives the same “excellent” heat tolerance rating as New Red Fire, which does indeed tolerate Virginia heat. At this link Johnny’s has a comparison chart of seven full-size leaf lettuce varieties.

Starfighter has a Utility Patent granted (a time-limited right to exclude others from use of plants and plant products), which I’m not a fan of. I believe plant material should be available open-source, for anyone to work with to develop improved varieties.

A utility patent grants the “owner” the right to exclude others from:

  1. making,
  2. using,
  3. selling or offering for sale,
  4. importing

the protected invention for 20 years from the original file date.

Starfighter lettuce also has resistance to tipburn,

Tipburn on lettuce. Photo University of California
Tipburn on lettuce.
Photo University of California

a stress condition caused by insufficient calcium reaching the edges of the leaves. This doesn’t mean the soil is short of calcium, but that fast growth and a shortage of water have caused some leaves not to receive enough calcium to build good cell walls. This happens particularly to leaves inside the head, or during times of high humidity, when less evapo-transpiration is happening, and those leaves lose out in terms of pulling enough water up. The edges of the lettuce leaves turn brown, although the rest of the lettuce looks fine.

Steve Albert on Harvest to Table has a good troubleshooting guide for lettuce.

Tipburn on lettuce. Photo Salinas Valley Agriculture
Tipburn on lettuce.
Photo Salinas Valley Agriculture


Rain, corn and beans, garden reading

Young bean plants Photo Steve Albert, Harvest to Table
Young bean plants
Photo Steve Albert, Harvest to Table

Well, we’ve had a lot of rain here in central Virginia: 6.3″ (16 cm) in 11 days from 4/26-5/6. The month of April landed us with 4.9″ (12.4 cm) and the first week of May with 2.6″ (6.6 cm). Last week I wrote about my worries for the beans and corn we’d sown before the big rains. The photo above is from Harvest to Table, a website for “beginner and veteran gardener alike”, with the goal of helping people “find easy solutions to common garden problems and . . . bring great food from your garden to your table.” I was happy to see our beans coming up 9 days after sowing, on Thursday! Thank goodness for raised beds! We had canals either side of the beds.

Young sweet corn. Hope to have ours looking like this in a few weeks. Photo Bridget Aleshire
Young sweet corn. Hope to have ours looking like this in a few weeks.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

And the corn started to come up 9 days after sowing, with wan little spikes poking up out of the ground. It remains to be seen how good or otherwise the stand is. I was looking at the top (road) end of the plot, where it is driest. I couldn’t even walk far into the plot as the soil was too sodden and I didn’t want to compact the soil. We always stay off wet soil if we start to sink in – compacting the soil just starves the roots of air and leaves the soil less free-draining than before, causing worse flooding problems. Our first sweet corn sowing is always a bit of a risk. In fact we prepare for this by sowing some corn seeds in styrofoam Speedling flats, the same day we sow the first corn planting outdoors. We float these on water in a tank we built from cinder blocks lined with carpet and plastic. (The carpet extends the life of the plastic.). It is possible to transplant sweet corn until it is about 2″ tall. The link takes you to Vern Grubinger at the University of Vermont, in a region where whole fields of corn are transplanted. We only transplant to fill gaps in our first sowing, if we need to.

Our float frame for Speedling flats can be seen behind this cart of lettuce transplants. Photo Pam Dawling
Our float frame for Speedling flats can be seen behind this cart of lettuce transplants.
Photo Pam Dawling

This floating technique comes from the tobacco growing industry. It works well for corn and onions, but it doesn’t work well for many vegetables – most can’t take continuous water and have to be drained some of the time. If early September is very hot, we use this technique for starting spinach seeds in hot weather. We float the Speedling flats in the daytime and pull them out to drain overnight.

Stakes and ropes set out for planting corn. Photo Kathryn Simmons
Stakes and ropes set out for planting corn.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Back to sowing corn. We sow by hand, making furrows below ropes we stretch between stakes at the right row spacing. In normal conditions, we flood the furrow with water from a hose before we plant. This gives the seed enough water to get up out of the ground and saves worrying and saves a lot of time watering the soil after planting. We put new seed at 6″ and last year’s seed at 4″. Later we thin to 8-10″. I think this shows that different people’s idea of 4″ and 6″ vary a lot! After sowing we cover the seed with soil and  tamp it down. We leave the ropes, as we’ve found they keep the crows off the corn seed. 10″ seems about the right height. About two weeks later we will sow our next corn, and at that point we move those stakes and ropes to mark out the new planting.

I wrote a blogpost for Mother Earth News Organic Gardening Blog, about transplanting broccoli (and other things) into hay mulch. You can see the post here.

And in case it’s raining where you are and you want to think about growing food while you can’t actually get out there and do it, here’s a video of the Succession Planting presentation I did at New Country Organics