If you want to feel like a productive vegetable gardener, one of the easiest and most useful plants to grow is lettuce. It is also one of the most productive, as it can be planted both for spring and fall crops and harvested a few leaves at a time. You can do successive plantings, meaning seeds can be planted every few weeks. As you harvest one planting, the next is maturing and will be ready to pick soon.
Leafy lettuce matures in only 50-60 days, but can be picked as soon as it is large enough for you to use -- no need to worry about how to tell when this plant is ready to harvest. In late summer the ground is often warm and dry, so make sure the seed bed stays evenly moist. If this is difficult in the garden you may want to start the seeds in flats and transplant them when they are about 4 inches tall. Lettuce plants are happiest once the temperatures cool to 60-70 degrees and they can handle frost.
As the seeds start to grow, the small plants removed by thinning (removing some plants to allow the remaining plants room to grow) can be used in salads or as garnish.
Lettuce is no doubt healthy. A cup of lettuce has under 20 calories, yet is rich in Vitamins A and C. It is also pretty. Leafy lettuce may be ruffled, rich green or burgundy. Cos or romaine, maturing in 60 days, is more upright. Butterhead lettuce forms looser, prettier and tastier heads than any grocery store iceberg lettuce ever dreamed of being and matures in 55-70 days. A lettuce seed mix, like those offered by Renee's Garden Seed (www.reneesgarden.com or call 1-888-880-7228 to find a local retailer), can provide a watercolor effect in the garden, but it also can provide color and texture in a container garden or as a background to an annual planting bed. Container gardens, especially large containers that can hold many plants, work well for plantings of lettuce.
Lettuce isn't the only vegetable that can produce for the fall garden.
Radishes grow easily from seed and can mature in as little as 30 days.
Spinach also produces quickly in the fall garden. Turnips, like lettuce and spinach, can handle frost. Not only are turnip roots useful in the kitchen, but thinning the plants provides healthy greens that can be cooked like spinach and tastes great with a splash of balsamic vinegar.
Although all of these are easy to grow from seed, lettuce is available in cell packs from garden centers, allowing you to add plants to your fall container plantings or a few plants to your vegetable garden. Why not replace a few summer annuals with pretty leaf lettuce and add color, nutrition and affordable groceries to your landscape?
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