I’ve now completed 12 monthly posts about suitable lettuce varieties and growing techniques. You can see these by clicking the Lettuce Varieties Category tab, but you can also get the overview here. They run from May to April because that’s how I wrote them. Click the name of the month to view the original post.
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.
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!
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.
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:
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)
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:
selling or offering for sale,
the protected invention for 20 years from the original file date.
Starfighter lettuce also has resistance to tipburn,
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.