Beautiful Lettuce

This is Red Iceberg. It wintered over as a seedling in the plastic garden tunnel, and erupted into life once the warm sun hit it. I transplanted several frost-blasted lettuce seedlings into a newly prepared bed containing soil amendments and my secret proprietary blend of organic fertilizer. Then I watered regularly. A crisp green heart is forming, surrounded by these lavish bronze leaves.

Most gardeners of my acquaintance have preferences–certain plants they really like to grow. I confess that lettuce is one of mine. I love garden catalogs that feature pages of lettuce varieties. I read about them all, heirlooms and new cultivars. Some do best during cool weather, and others adapt to hot weather without bolting. Some have wacky names like “Flashy Trout’s Back” and others have plain names like “Green Salad Bowl”. Some lettuces form heads, others stay leafy. Compared to store-bought lettuce, homegrown actually tastes like something. The Red Iceberg is nothing like that anemic stuff from the supermarket. It has crisp texture and a noticeable flavor. Why would you not grow lettuce? Spring and summer are the perfect time for salads.

Knowing that I would write about my fondness for lettuce, I did some research. Lettuce was known in antiquity, originating in the Near East. The Romans served it at the beginning of a meal to stimulate the appetite. The Egyptians associated lettuce with male fertility since the plant grows upright and exudes a milky liquid. (You can Google the history of lettuce yourself if you don’t believe me.) Lettuce traveled northward into Europe and evolved into French and Italian varieties, German and Dutch and English. Lettuce migrated to North America along with settlers from these countries. My parents always planted a row of red leaf lettuce, and my mom would make a warm dressing from bacon and cider vinegar that was poured over the fresh leaves, slightly wilting them. You had to eat this right away. I think it is a recipe from our German heritage.

I stagger plantings of lettuce through the season until it is too hot for it to germinate. When there is a surplus, I give bags of washed lettuce leaves to friends. I wallow in salads of green, red, bronze and speckled all summer long, first with crunchy radishes and later with ripe tomatoes and tender cucumbers. Lettuce is loaded with vitamins and minerals. I would grow it year round if I could. Instead, I sow a late planting, knowing that some will get started, freeze, then take off again in early spring. Now, it even seeds itself around the garden and I find volunteer lettuces everywhere. It pleases me to move them around and nurture them until they are ready to eat.

Right now I am awash in beautiful lettuce, with more to come.

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