Spring 2010

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Field Notes: Spring 2010

Salad Days

by Maura McDermott


Beautiful lettuce from Maura McDermott's garden.

As a child who grew up eating only iceberg lettuce from the grocery store, I was pleasantly surprised by my first bowl of fresh Buttercrunch lettuce from the garden. A butterhead (or Boston) type lettuce, it was melt-in-your-mouth tender, and actually had flavor. Who knew?

This was about thirty years ago. After many years of growing Buttercrunch I stumbled upon a catalog of “heirloom” or old-fashioned varieties of vegetables, which listed a few dozen varieties of lettuce, with names like Bronze Arrowhead, Red Velvet and Webb’s Wonderful. The photos and descriptions were irresistible. I ordered several packets, planted in early spring and after a month began picking leaves.

Those were my salad days. I began making salads that can only be described as beautiful. A typical concoction included an oak-leaf lettuce, a crisphead, a red-spotted romaine, and assorted leaves of chartreuse and magenta—crinkled, frilly or wrapped in tight rosettes. 

Nothing beats fresh-from-the-garden lettuce, for tenderness, flavor and show. I plant it spring and fall, and it is a high point each season. While days to harvest range from 45 to 65 days, one does not have to wait for the plant to be full-grown to begin harvesting; I start picking the outer leaves as soon as they get a decent size.
For those who want to hold out for a big beautiful head of lettuce, plant early. Lettuce loves cool weather. Apparently, longer days, hot weather and dry conditions or some combination of these cause lettuce to bolt (put up a flower/seed stalk) and the leaves become bitter-tasting.

Because in Oklahoma hot weather can come pretty early, it is a challenge to grow lettuce. But for several weeks at the beginning and end of the growing season, and in cold frames to extend the season, it can be done.

And it’s worth the trouble.

These days people don’t look askance when served leaf lettuces and salad mixes
of young lettuce and other greens. And gardeners and market farmers can find a broad variety of lettuces as well as salad mixes in traditional seed catalogs, as well as in heirloom seed catalogs.

I look for “slow-bolting” varieties, but confess I have yet to find one I thought was truly slow to bolt, though some seem to “hold” a little better than others. It is worth experimenting to see which works best for you. I try a new variety every year.
Enterprising farmers and gardeners can save the seed from non-hybrid lettuce varieties to plant in the next season. In south Texas, there is a semi-legendary variety of lettuce called “Crawford,” adapted to the hot and dry of the Lone Star State. Perhaps someday an Okie gardener will come up with a lettuce that is big and pretty and thrives in red clay dirt under clear blue skies.

Oklahoma Red has a nice ring, don’t you think?

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