“Give me a honeymoon salad,” a corn-fed neighbour of mine would always say (despite groans from fellow diners). “Lettuce alone.”
Fancier salad fixings come and go, but lettuce remains a staple. And while all types are fairly easy to grow, romaine, Boston and iceberg take time to fold into nice full heads. Leaf lettuce, by contrast, is always the first to be ready, many weeks before heading varieties. Thriving in cool weather, it’s planted as the ground warms in mid-April, and grows rapidly. With luck (i.e., cooperative weather), you’ll be picking leaves by the May long weekend—about a month from seed to salad bowl.
You just need to provide decent soil in full sun or dappled shade, a couple of centimetres of compost, a quick dig to stir and mix, and a levelling rake—then you’re ready to sow. Leaf lettuce can be grown in either crowded rows or in a nicely spaced one (which may start as a crowded row). For the first method, sow seeds six to 12 millimetres deep and about three centimetres apart, either in one long row or (better) a few shorter ones running parallel to each other, 15 centimetres apart, across a bed. Left unthinned, plants will produce lots of small leaves that can be plucked by hand or cut with scissors over the course of a month or more, as new leaves sprout from plant centres. Both age and heat push lettuce plants to seed—signifying the end of the harvest—so it’s a good idea to sow a couple of new rows every 10 days for a fresh supply.
Given room—that is, thinned to 20 centimetres apart—leaf lettuce responds beautifully, expanding into a full cone-shaped bunch. For steady, succulent growth, water lettuce thoroughly every three or four days. Around week three, feed with diluted fish emulsion, showering the patch afterwards to wash off any residue.
Disease in the lettuce patch is rare—I haven’t seen any in mine in three decades. But slugs and earwigs may show up. While earwigs are more of a nuisance than a threat, lodging in the plant’s centre and giving you a nasty surprise at the sink, slugs are slow, steady eaters that can do damage to plants, especially in wet weather. Early plantings often escape, as slugs are few and small at that time; later on, a close collar of sharp, gritty sand or ground eggshells should deter them. Beer works, too: small containers of (cheap) brew sunk to their rims in the soil attract and drown slugs.
While not as crisp as romaine or as buttery soft as Boston, leaf lettuce is as tasty as any other lettuce, easier to grow than most and always first to the table.