/ by Julia Sibley-Jones

I yearn for the smell and feel of turned earth. I eavesdrop gardening  blogs and daydream about English cottage gardens. I crave the crunch  of a fresh salad. It’s time to plant.

Lettuce is one of the easiest and most satisfying plants to grow. It works  in shallow containers on the patio or rows in the garden. And in the Upstate, early March is the perfect time to plant. In our part of the world, leaf lettuce grows better than head lettuce, but smaller head varieties like Marvel of the  4 Seasons Butterhead and Tom Thumb Butterhead grow well in containers.

Find seeds at most nurseries, garden supply stores and feed-and-seed  stores. South Pleasantburg Nursery in Greenville sells varieties of organic and heirloom seeds, including lettuce. Seeds for the South is a small family-owned business (in Graniteville, SC) that sells vegetable seeds for planting zones 7,8 and 9. Check out their website for the drool-worthy pictures and helpful descriptions of 14 lettuce varieties. The key to attractive residential vegetable beds is to choose varieties for beauty as well as taste.

Planting How-To

First prepare the soil. Lettuce needs a loamy soil, which means crumbly with a good mixture of clay, sand and silt. It’s best to  work in some compost about a week before planting, which  will help loosen the soil and give the seedlings some immediate nutrition. Plant seeds about ¼  inch deep and cover with potting soil. Because the seeds are so tiny,  it can be easier to scatter lines and then weed to the desired 6-8” spacing between seedlings.

Need some instant gratification? Purchase potted plants at any home and garden center and even some grocers (such as Whole Foods) but look for containers labeled organic. These plants can be put in the ground as early as March 1st or  as late as mid-April when many of the area’s annual plant sales occur, such as the one at Greenbrier Farms in nearby Dacusville.

Rows should be 18-24” apart but we’ve all been guilty in an urban setting of planting tighter rows; and short-lived crops, like lettuce, are more forgiving than deeper rooted veggies fighting for water.

Block young plants from too much drying wind and water to six inches, keeping the soil moist but not soggy. When plants are taller, trim away any leaves lying on the ground  to help avoid rot. Remember that plants in a raised bed or container will mature faster than those planted directly into the colder ground.

Whether grown in rows or in containers, try adding some complimentary edible plants. If you planted garlic in the fall and have a bit of room, this can be an ideal spot for some spring lettuce. If not, consider planting chives, which are delicious with lettuce. The allium family of plants (think garlic, chive, shallot, scallion) are known to help control aphids which will happily eat your lettuce before you get to it.

Most lettuce grown from seed is ready to harvest in about 75 days. Pick mature leaves which will  be 5-6” tall or opt to harvest baby lettuce leaves a bit sooner. Just  like a dog left too long unattended, lettuce will ‘bolt’ or run away from you. This means that its growth has turned from producing delicious leaves to creating flowers and seeds for regeneration. At this point,  the leaves may look scrawny and  for sure will taste bitter.

Once you harvest lettuce, wash it thoroughly to get any soil or bugs off. If you can’t eat it right away,  it will save for a few days in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator. Make sure that it’s bone dry before refrigerating, though, or it will rapidly decompose.

For a longer lettuce season,  you can sow new seeds every two weeks and choose a heat resisting variety. But then again, the real estate of your vegetable garden  may be in high demand as summer draws near.