Color and texture are key elements of lettuce, an often overlooked component of our salads and sandwiches. However, lettuce should not be limited to the few varieties sold in most grocery stores. There are many types of lettuce (Lactuca sativa) varying in color and texture that grow well in our Central Texas climate. Since colored vegetables are higher in antioxidants, be sure to include plenty of the red and burgundy varieties of lettuce in your garden and recipes. Recommended lettuce varieties for the area include Black Seeded Simpson, Lollo Rossa, Vulcan, Freckles, Buttercrunch, Salad Bib, Raisa, Red Sails, and Parris Island Cos. Try growing lettuce for a mesclun mix, which refers to assorted small, young leaves. Traditionally, mesclun mixes included equal parts chervil, arugula, lettuce, and endive, but today they may include frisee, radicchio, sorrel, or other varieties.
Lettuce grows well with cool temperatures and adequate moisture. Hot weather prompts it to complete its life cycle by blooming, producing seeds, and dying (this process is called “bolting”). Like many greens, the flavor gets bitter and the texture gets tougher when lettuce bolts in hot weather. Lettuce can generally tolerate frosts but not hard freezes, so in Central Texas, plant lettuce as early as September for a fall harvest in November or January-February for a spring harvest in March-April.
Lettuce is easy to plant from seed, but if you are hoping to accelerate the process, you can always plant from transplant. In order to know how to best plant seeds, you will need to know the two distinct ways to harvest lettuce: harvesting full heads, or the “cut and come again” method, in which a few leaves are cut from each plant while the leaves are small. The plants grow new leaves, allowing for a continuous harvest throughout the season. If you plan to harvest full heads, plant seeds about 8-12 inches apart, and about 1/4 inch in depth. If you plan to use the “cut and come again” method, simply scatter seeds over the desired area. Either way, press them lightly on the surface to firm soil against the seed, and then mist them well to thoroughly moisten. Transplants should be planted 4 to 6 inches apart in rich, well-drained soil, either in the ground or in containers at least 12 inches in diameter. Since lettuce is shallow rooted, avoid deep cultivation. Ideally, add several inches of organic matter such as compost. Mulching the plants is usually best when plants are well-established. Lettuce requires at least 8 hours of direct sun each day, but it can also tolerate a bit of filtered light, meaning as little as 5-6 hours of direct sun. Mild temperatures, high fertility, and regular moisture are key ways to ensure your lettuce grows.
Planting tip: Lettuce seeds germinate best in cold soil. Since Central Texas remains warm through October, it is best to put your lettuce seeds in the fridge for a week before planting in order to improve germination rates.
Depending on the variety, lettuce is usually fully mature for harvesting the entire plant in 40-65 days. Any part of the plant is tender and edible from the time it germinates, so feel free to pick leaves to eat or to use entire plants that are thinned at any time. Either pick the large but still tender, pest-free older leaves from the bottom of the plant or cut the entire plant just above the ground. Wash and prepare, or refrigerate immediately.
Because now is the time to plant, not harvest lettuce, we’re sharing a recipe for preparing okra, since it is in abundance! This is a great summer recipe because it can be made in a toaster oven, so that you don’t have to heat up your entire kitchen. Also, many people are turned off by okra’s slimy texture, and eating it whole in this recipe diminishes this factor significantly-- in fact it’s hardly noticeable. This makes a great snack—I often eat them with my fingers as if they were crackers or potato chips!
- ½ lb. fresh, whole okra, any color (about 2 cups)
- 1 tsp. olive oil
- Salt to taste
Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees.
Wash okra and dry well.
Drizzle olive oil on okra.
Roast for ten to twelve minutes. Okra will be soft, but still retain its shape. Add salt to taste and eat warm.