Seen at the Festival of the Tree

...if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden ~ Chinese proverb

Friday, 22 March 2013

Salad Days: Mastering Lettuce

I've decided one of my salad challenges for this year is to grow as many lettuce varieties as I can, ready for the publication of my planned Factsheet* later on.

The idea is to grow as many of the Tried and Trusted lettuce varieties last year's Salad Challengers helped compile, then provide a visual guide and as many lettuce facts as I can muster. So far I've found around half of those listed**. Then naturally whilst I was out searching - because such is the way with seeds - a number of other varieties found their way home too ;)

A couple of weeks ago I sowed 22 varieties***. Just the simple act of sowing them has me intrigued. Why are some lettuce seeds black and others white****? They split into about half white to half black in my sample and as far as I can tell it's nothing to do with whether they're a type of cos, iceberg, or whatever.

I sowed them indoors and popped them into a propagator on the windowsill. The soil's too cold outside for sowing and it won't be warm enough to plant them out in the cold frame outside until late April or May. Most of them germinated in 4-6 days, well within the 7-10 days given on most seed packets. I have a couple of no shows - Crisp Mint and Tamburo. Crisp Mint was a bit of a dodgy prospect anyway because I opened the packet a couple of years ago. However, Tamburo was all shiny and new, so I'm currently conducting a germination test to see if I have a duff packet.

As you can see, despite being on a sunny south facing windowsill in March, my lettuces are rather leggy. However, I'm not going to throw them away and start again because we had a top tip from Alys Fowler in #saladchat on this very thing last year: just bury the stem up to the leaves when pricking out and they should come out OK in the end. That won't solve my problem of where to put them all though!

All this legginess means I've been pondering grow lights again. The pukka thing is hideously expensive, though I'm told eBay is the place to find a bargain if I go down this route. Alternatively, Antjon posted recently about a DIY solution he's rigged up for his geranium seedlings using a full-spectrum SAD lamp for around £10.

It's got me wondering whether all SAD lamps are full-spectrum and if a daylight bulb (which I have already) is the same thing. We've also been chatting on Twitter and Arabella Sock and Alex Mitchell - who already have SAD lamps - are having a go to see what happens. As we've now reached the spring equinox, I'm saving my experimentation for later in the year. I must also remember to try John Harrison's tip re using aluminium foil as a reflector to maximise available light.

How's your salad coming along? Link to your salad post's URL in Mr Linky below. BTW I've answered question 5 from last month's Salad Days: pre-soaking makes no difference to pea seed emergence rates. It does allow me to assess seed viability though, so I'll continue with this practise.

* = in the meantime, this article from the University of Illinois has lots of information.

** = they are: Black Seeded Simpson, Dazzle, Freckles, Iceberg, Little Gem, Lobjoits Cos, Lollo Rosso, Marveille de Quatre Saisons, Red Salad Bowl, Relic, Salad Bowl, and Tan Tan

*** = Note to self: must sow more thinly next time - just 1 or 2 seeds per module will do

**** = it seems it's a genetic factor, just like bean colour. This paper also says there are a few yellow seeded varieties too.


  1. Shame your Crisp Mint is a no show because it's a brilliant variety. I'm continuing with the blue SAD lamp on my cosmos seedlings! Not sure if it's making much difference yet, but blue spectrum light apparently promotes bushy growth so it should be better than nothing.

  2. You will certainly have variety on your plate VP. I wonder what those seedlings will look like a month from now. Sadly nothing to report from me bar some sturdy sweet peppers and some leggy tomato seedlings. I've been away from home for three weeks of the last month looking after a poorly mum, so my sowing schedule has gone out of the window. Hoping to catch up this weekend if the snow lets up :)

  3. Hi VP, I haven't got a lamp as I'm keeping my limited indoor space (and small heated propagator) for tomatoes, squash and cucumbers. I did start off some lettuces in my mini greenhouse outdoors at the beginning of March, when a few warm (ish) days fooled me into thinking spring was really upon us. I sowed Chatsworth, Ashbrook, All Year Round and Red Salad Bowl lettuces and although they've all just about germinated, it's going to be a while before I can pot them on/plant them out. Really different from last year when I sowed lettuces at the end of Feb and was eating them from mid-May onwards! Mustard leaves RedKnight Mizuna have been the fastest of all my seeds to germinate, followed by other mustards, Green in Snow and Broad Head Mizuna.
    Since then, I've sunk back into seed sowing despair (OK, lethargy then), but your post has inspired me to search through my ever increasing ridiculous amount of seeds and I shall soon get sowing Lollo Rosso, Cocarde Solix, Arctic King and Navarra lettuces, again being blindly optimistic that surely the weather has to warm up (although I do know that snow is predicted in London this weekend.)
    (I've also had no problem pricking out leggy lettuce seedlings and covering the elongated stems to get healthy plants later in the season.)
    What a strange and frustrating start to the growing season, but (still) hoping for mild days ahead and lettuces for all summer long..... Looking forward to seeing your 22 varieties!

  4. What a lot of varieties,interesting salads in your house then

  5. My lettuce growing will be limited this year to mixed salad leaves & Little gems. I am for the first time trying a few varieties radicchio though.

  6. Top tip on burying leggy lettuce, will have to remember that one. I have some lettuces grown to small plug size lurking in the cold frame, but I can't bring myself to inflict the raised beds on them, even with a covering of fleece, when it is so blasted cold! I haven't dared get my soil thermometer out for fear I would get truly depressed. I also experimented with putting a few plugs in a soil bed in the greenhouse, but the combination of low light levels and low temperatures means they are not growing at all. Thank goodness for the mibuna and rocket which are still supplying me with leaves for sandwiches. Will try and get a post together over the weekend.

  7. VP....I wonder if you had just a bit of a break in the weather if you would try putting out some seeds of Marvel of Four Seasons and Black seeded Simpson in your coldframe. Barely cover them, and lay a light white fleece on top of the damp soil, and lower your lights/lid. I am not a gambling person but I really do think they will germinate and grow outdoors for you, right now. These are two hardy greens I have grown and in fact, Black seeded Simpson stayed in the ground all winter and germinate the first sign of spring and your weather is far more kind than ours here in Nova Scotia USDA 5/6. Nothing like an experiment. Loved your lettuce not know Tan Tan.

  8. Interesting! We do the 'bury to the leaves' thing with many seedlings that get leggy and it always works. As for lettuce, we're not huge lettuce eaters - I think perhaps we need to up our game, looking at your list of varieites!

  9. Alex - thanks for the update :) Your comment has reminded me about a nursery I visited last year where they were using different light colour at different times in the growing period. I must look into this aspect more thoroughly!

    Anna - sorry to hear your mum has continued to be poorly :( In view of the consistent cold weather we've been having, I'm sure you'll be catching us up in no time at all.

    Outofmyshed - I've still to get round to the non-lettuce side of things! You've reminded me I need to add Cocarde to my list - I seem to remember that did really well for you last year.

    Flowerlady - that's the plan :)

    AWPOL - Radicchio's on my list too :)

    Janet - at Holt Farm on Tuesday they said their soil thermometer was reading 3 degrees :( At least the light levels are getting better all the time, even if the temperatures aren't!

    Bren - thanks for the tip. I'll certainly give that a try when we get some better weather - it's snowing today! I can use up the spare plants in that way :)

    Kay - welcome - it's turning out to be a top tip :)

  10. 22 varieties! Wow!! Looking forward to seeing those grow and your factsheet too. My lettuce is doing really well actually, I'll have to take some more photos, I popped one on instagram the other day. I've just sown some more seeds too. The lettuce I have now is nearly ready to eat and/or pot on to grow bigger, in fact I nibbled on a leaf the other day. I sowed that batch end of nov/dec and it struggled on through sat on my windowsill. I won't sow that late again but despite all odds it's done really well.

  11. 22 varieties of lettuce is super impressive, I'm really looking forward to your factsheets. I have to admit being a little lax about lettuce at the moment, I need to get planting out. Where though remains a challenge....

  12. Anna B - it should be more when I get hold of some of the other Tried and Trusted recommendations :)

    Liz - where is an ongoing challenge with this perpetual winter we're having. Fingers crossed we get our spring soon...

  13. Re grow lights: on the site there is quite a lot about growing from seed and grow lights, and one of the experts says he just uses normal fluorescent light strips, that they work just as well as the expensive "real" grow lights.
    Good tip about planting the leggy seedlings so deep, I didn't know that, and some have gotten rather long.

  14. Hi Helle - thanks for the tip. For me I think the fluorescent light strip will be about the same cost as a SAD lamp. I must research light colour and which kinds are best for growing indoors - I suspect there'll be all kinds of DIY options available...

  15. "What a lot of varieties,interesting salads in your house then"
    Couldn't agree enough.

  16. Nelson - thanks and welcome to Veg Plotting!


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