We’re on the brink of starting to harvest our first outdoor lettuce, switching over from the last of the baby lettuce mix in the hoophouse. Our goal for this transition is April 15, but naturally the exact date will depend on the weather in the spring, the coldness of the late winter, the rate at which we are eating lettuce and other factors beyond the grower’s control.
We make three sowings of baby lettuce mix: 10/24 to harvest early December to early March (after we’ve cut it several times, and it is starting to tun bitter); 12/31 to harvest from late February till the end of March Later if it doesn’t get bitter from hot weather); and 2/1 to harvest mid March to the end of April. This year the #2 sowing is still edible in mid April, so we have two patches feeding us for a little longer.
Our winter salad mixes are very popular, but we can only continue with those as long as the spinach and the salad brassicas hold up. Part of me is always sad to stop eating salad mix, but the other part welcomes the juicier, crunchier, tastier head lettuce. Baby lettuce mix is very pretty, but honestly I find it a bit short on flavor and texture! It’s the other ingredients in the salad that make it interesting for me, especially spinach.
The first outdoor lettuce were sown 1/17, planted out 3/9, to feed us 4/15 to 5/8, when the second sowing should be ready. We cover these with rowcover on hoops when we transplant, for about a month, or until the weather seems settled at a reasonable temperature.
Our raised beds outdoors are 4 ft wide, with 1 ft paths. we plant four rows of lettuce, spaced 12″ apart, and plant about 120 from each sowing. That usually fills a third of a 90 ft long bed, so we have 3 different plantings in each bed of lettuce. We continue at this pace until our last outdoor plantings around the fall equinox.
This spring we are going to continue the salad mixes a bit longer by harvesting the outdoor lettuce by the leaf. We have lots of really good looking spinach to mix in, and the last few mizuna and ferny mustards. We used to only sow these twice, 9/24 to transplant in the hoophouse, and 11/9, which feeds us until late March. We added in a third sowing of mizuna and ferny mustards 2/1 which we harvest 3/24 to 4/23 approximately. That extra month is really worth having!
We also have a short row of Sugar Ann snap peas in the hoophouse (sowed 2/1) that we like to snip into thirds and add to salad mix. This makes for a nice little surprise for everyone. We couldn’t feed a hundred on 50 ft of snap peas! These are an incentive to keep the salad mixes going while the peas are being harvested.
I have written blogposts about growing lettuce in October, September, August, July, June and May. On October 25, I reported that we have covered our last outdoor bed of head and leaf lettuce, and an “emergency” bed of baby lettuce mix with double hoops and rowcover. Now, one month later, we are waiting out this cold snap (19F/-7C last night) until we get a mild spell to uncover those beds and finish harvesting them. We want to move the hoops and row covers to the outdoor spinach beds.
We are now harvesting only winter salad mixes, no more big bowls just of lettuce. We are using leaves from the outdoor lettuce, the outdoor lettuce mix, or leaves from the lettuce in the greenhouse, according to whatever is most ready. We chop the lettuce up as we harvest. I start with about half of the harvest bucket full of chopped lettuce. I notice that it takes 3 half-buckets of harvested greens to fill one bucket! The greens settle, and when mixed they take less space than they started out using.
Lettuce varieties we are currently harvesting include Green Forest, Hyper Red Wave, Merlot, new Red Fire, Oscarde, Panisse, Red Salad Bowl, Red Tinged Winter, Revolution, Salad Bowl, Star Fighter, Tango, Winter Marvel and Winter Wonderland. Last winter we grew some Osborne Multileafvarieties we liked a lot. This year I learned the hard way that pelleted seed doesn’t store well. As pointed out by Johnnys Seeds in their JSS Advantage Newsletter January 2012
“Some seeds, particularly lettuce, are primed before pelleting, which begins the metabolic process leading to germination. Because some of the early steps toward germination are completed before the seed is planted, germination happens more quickly. Germination times can be 50% faster with primed seed. When seeds germinate quickly, they may avoid potential problems including soil crusting, weeds, and soilborne diseases. On the down side, primed seed doesn’t have the same storage life as unprimed seeds, so we recommend that you purchase only enough for the current season.”
I like to mix three crop families in every salad mix: lettuce, spinach/chard/beet greens/brassicas. I also like to mix the colors and textures, so if most of that day’s lettuce leaves are green, I’ll be sure to get some Bulls Blood beet leaves or Ruby Streaks or Scarlet Frills. I don’t make the same mix every day, as variety is the spice of life!
I love the taste of spinach leaves in salad, and we have lots of spinach (outdoors, in cold frames and in the hoophouse). I love the colors of baby Bright Lights and Rainbow chard. I chop those stems small – not everyone likes a big hit of chard flavor in their salad. When I harvest Bulls Blood beets I snip the stems close to the base of the plant, line up a handful of leaves, then snip off the stems just below the leaf blades, before chopping the leaves into the bucket. These stems are kind of wiry, not good food. I don’t like to leave the leaf stems on the plant for two reasons. One is that the stems “cage in” the developing plant, reducing the access to sunlight and photosynthesis. The other is that the stems die back later and rot. Better to remove them right away. I do the same with spinach.
Last month I mentioned the brassica salad mix we sowed in our hoophouse 10/2. We have made three cuts already – very good value for the tiny amount of space occupied. Mizuna, Ruby Streaks, Scarlet Frills and Golden Frills add a ferny shape and some loft to the mix. Mizuna is very mild, the other three are spicy. Other brassicas we are currently cutting small for our salad mixes include tatsoi and Russian kales (red and white). At some point, deeper in the winter, we’ll try to leave the kale alone to grow big for cooking greens. This will happen when we are shorter of cooking greens than salad items, and the kale has become more robust. Some of the crew are more hardcore than me, and include sturdier greens, like senposai. Later in the winter, other crops will come to the fore.
We also include as microgreens any thinnings from recently sowed rows of almost any greens, including radishes and turnips if they are not bristly-leaved varieties.
Our 10/24 hoophouse sowing of baby lettuce mix is almost ready to harvest – maybe in the next week or so. We have made an 11/2 second sowing of mizuna and friends, but the seedlings are still tiny, showing a big difference between the temperatures on 10/24 and those a week later on 11/2.
For cutting lettuce I like the plain steel scissors fromLee Valley. They are sturdy, easy to tighten and sharpen and ambidextrous. They are a traditional Chinese style.
Lastly, for those of you who want to know more about the Twin Oaks garden specifically, let me introduce you to the Twin Oaks Garden blog. It’s written by Wren Vile, one of the upcoming managers. I will be retiring as garden manager on March 1 2017, and Wren and Brittany will take over the day-to-day running of the garden. I won’t be going away, I’ll be around to answer questions, and I will continue to do some work in the garden, around the “edges”, rather than in the thick of the shifts. I’ll have more time for my writing and speaking on vegetable growing, and I’ll have more time off!
This week I’ve been marveling at Ruby Streaks, a beautiful ferny dark red leafy salad vegetable growing in our hoophouse. It brings a smile to winter salad mixes, a refreshing change from all the earnest shades of green. It’s beautiful, fast-growing, productive, easy to grow, cold tolerant, sweet-tasting,slightly pungent, and the seed is not expensive, what more need I say?
Ruby Streaks is so much more colorful and interesting than actual purple mizuna. For the botanists of Asian Greens among us, Ruby Streaks is a Brassica juncea, not B. rapa var japonica, like actual mizuna.
It can be grown and used as a microgreen (cut at small seedling stage), or a baby green after 21 days, and full size after 40 days. You could lightly braise it if you wanted it cooked. The leaves are finely serrated at the baby size and very similar to mizuna at full size. The stems are green and the leaf color ranges from dark green with red veins in warmer weather, to dark maroon in winter. Right now the color is incredible.
We harvest full size leaves by “crew-cutting” one side of each plant with scissors, then chopping them into short lengths. The plants regrow quickly.
It germinates quickly. Fedco warns that it bolts more readily than mizuna. We only grow it in the winter, when nothing is inclined to bolt, so this hasn’t been an issue for us. If you want to sow for spring, I’d recommend starting early in flats or pots indoors, and then transplanting at 4-5 weeks of age, about a month before the last frost date. Use rowcover for a few weeks.
To start in summer for a fall outdoor crops, you could again use flats, or you can make an outdoor nursery seed bed, protected with hoops and rowcover or ProtekNet insect netting from Fedco or from Purple Mountain Organics in Maryland. In hot weather it’s easier to keep outdoor beds damp compared to flats with a small amount of soil in them. We start ours 6/26 – the same dates we use for sowing fall broccoli and cabbage. The last sowing date is about 3 months before the first frost date. Transplant at 3-4 weeks of age, preferably not older. We haven’t tested out the cold-hardiness of Ruby Streaks, but I would expect it to survive at least down to 25F (-4C), the temperature mizuna is good to.
But the hoophouse in winter is where Ruby Streaks really shines! Double layers of inflated plastic provide enough protection in our climate for Ruby Streaks to grow all winter. And I do mean make actual growth, not just rest up waiting for spring! For winter salad mixes, we sow on 9/24 in an outdoor nursery bed, then plant into the hoophouse 10/24 (4 weeks old). We harvest that 11/1-1/25, by only cutting down one side of the plant at a time. After we clear that crop, we sow radishes in the space. We sow a second round of Ruby Streaks and mizuna inside the hoophouse 11/9, thin it into the salad, and then harvest from it 1/27-3/6.