Sunday, August 10, 2008

The biggest surprise (updated)

I can say, without a doubt, that lettuces have been the biggest surprise for me in the garden. Lettuces never made the mental list of some-day crops that we had been maintaining over the last few years. When Steve Quirt, our local extension practitioner, brought a flat of baby lettuce to his seed-saving lecture in June, I was lukewarm on Denise's idea to take them home.

Granted, Steve's lecture on saving seed was eye-opening. I had no idea how such a thing worked with lettuce, and I had no idea how many varieties of lettuce there were. Steve has been growing lettuce in our area for almost thirty years and he pretty much seems to be growing his own cultivars now. His lecture piqued my interest in lettuce a little more...but not even really to a simmer.

Over the last two months we had our first crop of mesclun fail (planted too late) and our second crop of butter lettuces (planted too late, perhaps not enough sun) has puttered along. We obtained the seeds for both of these crops from mail-order sources. I haven't given up on our second crop, but I can't say they have been a success either.

Meanwhile, the lettuces we got from Steve were slowly moving along, growing bit by bit. We attributed this to planting them in the wrong season and the hot weather. However, the weather cooled off a couple weeks ago and Steve's lettuces got to eating size. We know that lettuces tend to bolt if exposed to prolonged hot weather so we thought we should just try some in case we ended up losing the crop.

It was excellent. (I'm kicking myself for not photographing the pea, mint, lemon, pecorino salad we made Friday night with it.) But the most interesting surprise was how fast it grew back in. I noticed this while hand-watering* this weekend and immediately called Denise over to see it. I am still blown away every time I walk by it.

Below there are two photographs that show the lettuce we harvested this Friday in the foreground and lettuces we harvested a week ago Friday in the background. We have been harvesting lettuces by snipping the leaves about an inch and a half from the base. Denise learned that the lettuces actually grow from the bottom (seems obvious enough I suppose) and if you look at the photos carefully you can see that the tips of the re-grown lettuces are flat where they were snipped.

So the logical moral to the story is that seeds / crops that have grown well in this climate, in fact in this case, were developed in this climate, will do best. We're looking forward to harvesting Steve's crop as long as possible into the fall, letting it go to seed, and planting a whole lot more of it next year.

-- Chris

* Hand-watering. We've been getting some grief from some of our friends for not putting in drip irrigation. usually this comes after we say something like "I'd love to attend your baby shower/birthday party/wedding but I have to water my tomatoes." OK, that's an exaggeration, but it is not an overstatement to say that growing food without irrigation can put a bit of a cramp on your social life. Which is fine with us. That, and we're cheap. Especially on rented land. Add in that we didn't exactly know what we were doing when we laid out the beds, and irrigation is kind of ruled out for us.

But I have been reading more and more that indicates that hand-watering is the way to go for several reasons, but the most interesting one to me is that it forces you to slow down and spend time with your plants on a regular basis. You notice little things (like lettuce re-growth) and you learn about how your plants grow in a way you never would if you let a nanny raise your kids. Oops, I mixed metaphors there. But I stand by my opinion.

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