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Gardening On the North Coast

Gardening on the North Coast
Growing Lettuce in Fortuna
Grass Growing Made Easy
Soil Care

Lettuce, One of the Easiest Garden Crops to Grow in Fortuna.

Have you tasted lettuce? Of course you have. It's crunchy, green, watery and bland. It's probably also a little soggy, because it was harvested a week ago.

The lettuce you buy in the store is optimized to make it easy to grow, spray, harvest, handle, store, ship, merchandise and sell. Taste is given little consideration. This is of great benefit to everyone except you - and you're the one who is paying for the privilege of putting this into your mouth.

So, have you ever tasted homegrown lettuce? You may need to learn all over again how delicious lettuce can be. And of course, the nutritional value of just-picked lettuce is much higher than lettuce that's been sitting around for days. Almost every day the neighbors see us in the garden with the bowl and the scissors, cutting a bit off this plant and a bit off that one, snipping a bit of chives and harvesting some other fruit or vegetable to add to the salad. It's nutritious, satisfying, and very inexpensive - a $4 packet of seed will keep us in lettuce for months.

Lettuce is as easy to grow as grass, and with only a small effort you can have delicious and nutritious greens as close as your back door.   Pictures below.

If a search sent you to this page, welcome! These instructions can be used anywhere, but the dates are specific to Fortuna, located on the beautiful and rugged North Coast of California, home of the Giant Redwoods.

A Harvest a Day Year-round
Unlike radishes, carrots or beets where there's one harvest, lettuce provides you with cut-and-come-again harvests for up to two months per plant. There are two types of lettuce, head lettuce (that familiar green ball you get at the produce counter) and leaf lettuce. Head lettuce can be harvested only once and isn't well suited for this type of culture. Leaf lettuce is, and there are many varieties to choose from.

Lettuce likes it cool and mild. During the wet season we like Territorial Seed Company's 'Super Gourmet Blend', a mix of different red and green leaf types. These seeds are available on their web site and locally at Pierson's, the Co-op, and A&L Feed in McKinleyville. You can use their retail store locator to find other stores on the Pacific Coast. Another excellent source of blended lettuce seed is The Cook's Garden.

You'll get the best taste and quality from plants that grow outdoors. But you live in an apartment, or don't feel like messing about in the wild and wooly outdoors? Bring home a bag of soil from NurseryWorld, lay it down in a sunny spot and poke a few holes for the seeds. You can even stick in some onion sets or sow some radishes.

If planting directly in the garden, put a pinch of seeds a foot apart. You can make rows or plant in a bed. Rows are ideal if you use a tractor for cultivation but beds are much more efficient in a small garden. Planting in (raised) beds allows the roots to stretch out in all directions in the soft soil and they can get all the nutrients they need.

Lettuce likes fertile soil and lots of water. Seeds will germinate even in 40-degree soil, but in the dead of winter that may take two weeks, so start them inside in a flat of some type, or just throw a half-dozen seeds in a pot, directions are below.

After a few weeks get out the scissors and cut yourself a salad. Some people harvest only the outer leaves, but it's easiest to just grab the top of the plant and slice off everything an inch above the lowest leaves, just like cutting the grass. As long as you don't cut into the growing point (just above the roots), everything will grow back. You can do this as often as you wish until the leaves start to taste a little bitter, then the plant's ready for the compost pile.

If you like lettuce, have a dozen harvestable clumps of plants going per person, constantly rotating into new ones and composting the oldest. How long does a clump last and how often can you cut it? Harvestable lettuce depends on the temperature and soil conditions. In late spring a clump may last two months and supply cuttings weekly. Summer lettuce produces faster but doesn't last as long, and winter plants have slower growth. In other words, you'll need fewer plants during the summer and more plants during the winter. Experiment, because your tastes will vary.

Here's the main requirement for doing it right - start another batch every three weeks. Notice how we made some of those words in the last sentence bold? Starting a new crop regularly is crucial to the taste of the lettuce. Young lettuce is much preferred, and you'll have all you'll need (we don't follow our own instructions very well, we instead hurl a few seeds on the ground almost every weekend). Around the end of May switch to a summer type of leaf lettuce, grow it in a shadier spot and keep it well watered.

These pictures were taken around Christmas, it was cold and seed put in the ground would have taken weeks to germinate. The seeds were instead broadcast over a square nursery flat and kept indoors to speed germination (an alternative to this flat would be to use separate pots and put a few seeds into each). The cover was removed when the seeds sprouted and the flat was placed in a cool, sunny spot.

The flat closest to the camera should have been planted a week ago. The one in the back is a perfect candidate for planting today. We've taken the scissors to an overgrown flat like this and eaten the results. The plants don't mind and it makes them a little bushier when planted out.

We can't stress enough how important it is to start harvesting the plants when they are small and tender. The last thing you want in growing lettuce is a huge, old plant - like giant zucchinis, they're only suited for the chickens or the compost pile.

The flat was sliced, like a cake, into roughly four-inch squares which were then planted into this bed. There may be as many as a dozen plants in each square. Planting them this densely requires a fertile soil. Three or four cups of organic fertilizer and a cup of blood meal would be just about right here, mixed well into the top three or four inches. These are ten by four foot raised beds, just piles of soil and compost, about eight inches high in the middle, ideal for wet-weather gardening.

Planting seeds in the ground
Again, the only reason we used plants in this instance was because it was late winter, the soil was wet and cold, and germination would have taken weeks. If we had seeded, we would have placed a pinch of seeds at each of these locations.
Normally we would plant only half this bed, but we were feeding another family at the time.

This batch was planted about two weeks ago and is ready to be selectively harvested for the next couple of months. Got the scissors? 

It's mid-May in this picture, and this bed of lettuce is good for maybe a couple more weeks of harvesting before the plants are composted. The lettuce was fed with fish emulsion weekly (lettuce LOVES water and fish emulsion). At the store's produce department they want over $4 a pound for 'Spring Blend Leaf Lettuce' and it's usually several days old.

After this bed is rebuilt we'll plant squash here. Behind the photographer is a brand new lettuce bed which has already been harvested several times.

Here's a batch grown in a barrel. They're also at their last, starting to get a little bitter. This is a blend of mostly red leaf lettuces and they're much too warm for their liking. In the early summer the soil in a barrel is difficult to keep moist and lettuce plants suffer. This spot would be better for some marigolds. That's garlic in the upper left corner, not corn.

There aren't any pictures of the summer lettuce yet, but they're grown the same way, except they could use a little cool shade. Lettuce doesn't 'bolt' (go to seed) because it's summer, it's because they're an annual and have a short growing season. Higher temperatures speed up their life cycle.