Plant of the Week
November 4, 2006
Now that the weather has cooled, two vegetables can easily be planted from seed right NOW! My favorites of the “greens” crops are spinach and Crawford lettuce. Using transplants, both are transferred into the garden in late October or early November. Even though spinach is much more nutritious than lettuce (please see link at the end of this article), sometimes spinach is a slow grower, and transplants can be hard to find.
The next best “greens” crop is Crawford lettuce. Lettuce (Lactuca sativa) is, without a doubt, the world’s most popular salad plant. Both its common and its Latin name are based on an easily noticeable characteristic–it has a heavy, milky juice. The word, “lettuce,” is probably derived from the old French laitues (plural of laitue), meaning “milky,” in reference to this plant. The Latin root word, lac, means milk and appears in the Latin name, lactuca. Although its culture was widespread in ancient times, it is neither so old, nor was it so widely grown in ancient times as a number of other garden crops. Cultivated lettuce is closely related to the wild lettuce, L. scariola, from which it was derived. Wild lettuce is now widely scattered over the globe, but it originated in inner Asia Minor, the Trans-Caucasus, Iran, and Turkistan.
Lettuce was, without a doubt, among the first garden seeds sown in every European colony on this continent. Loose-leaf lettuces are still popular for home gardens because they are so easy to grow. However, the loose-leaf form is highly perishable after harvesting, so currently it is rarely grown in the United States for sale. Lettuce is an annual plant that requires a relatively cool climate for good leaf and head growth. Hot weather causes it to become bitter and hastens the elongation of its stem into a tall seed stalk (called “bolting”). The stems or “cores” of head varieties elongate too soon if grown when temps are too warm, either preventing heading or causing the heads to be loose and of poor quality.
We mention the variety of lettuce named “Crawford” is because it had its beginning right here in San Antonio. At a monthly meeting in the early 1980’s, San Antonio Men’s Garden Club Double Life Member, Marshall Crawford, stood up during a “Show-and-Tell” session with a lettuce plant he had just harvested from his garden, roots and all. Marshall said he had been growing this variety of lettuce for a number of years and he thought “it was a pretty good lettuce for the San Antonio area.” It was named after Marshall Crawford and is a reliable re-seeding lettuce for our area. The picture at right is Marshall & Irene Crawford.
The Crawford lettuce is an heirloom, black-seeded romaine cos-type lettuce that sports 10-inch heads of slightly savory green leaves with blotches of reddish brown toward the margins. It has a wonderful non-bitter flavor, loves the winter garden climate, stands up to heat well and will self-seed (for my brown-thumb friends, you must let the lettuce flower and form seed in the spring before re-seeding will occur the following year!) and sprout the following fall when temperatures are ideal. Obviously, gardeners who want the lettuce to reseed cannot cover the area in mulch. If you use lots of mulch, you should collect the seed and sow them in the fall on exposed soil. Crawford lettuce can be grown in pots and flower beds as well. When the lettuce finally bolts (flowers) and goes to seed in the spring, it is very attractive with the yellow flowers on a tall spike.
Marshall Crawford received the seed from his father-in-law, John Wesley Van Houtan, a mechanic and long-time gardener from Tulsa, Oklahoma. Marshall’s wife, Irene, said her father was born in 1900 and was a wonderful backyard gardener. He grew the lettuce and saved seed from the best plants each year for as long as she could remember. Irene is not sure where her father originally got the seed, but suspected her father’s family, when coming from Europe, brought the seed with them to America, and it has been passed down through the generations.
In the October 2005, issue of the Men’s Garden Club of San Antonio monthly newsletter, Horti-Bull, was a write-up on how to best grow Crawford Lettuce. It read, “The Chinese have been using similar seed germination methods in Yunan and Sechuan Provinces for over 40 centuries. Lettuces as a group are easy to grow and Crawford is both the easiest lettuce to grow and the best tasting lettuce, year in and year out.”
Lettuce needs rich soil and plenty of moisture. Nothing much bothers lettuce in the way of bugs and disease as long as you remember to space the plants far enough apart and keep it growing rapidly by providing plenty of water and plant nutrients.
You should make three or four successive plantings to ensure a longer harvesting season. Sow your first seeds in early October to be ready for Thanksgiving. Time the second planting in early November to be ready for Christmas. Make the third planting in mid-January and the fourth planting in early February. The final two plantings may produce bolting plants from which seed can be saved. How soon it turns hot in spring determines when the lettuce will flower. Temperatures above 80 degrees F. will induce bolting, seed production and a taste of bitterness.
Lettuce bed preparation is similar to that for any vegetable. Use 2-3 pounds of 19-5-9 slow-release fertilizer per 10 feet of row. Compost and manures can also be incorporated into the planting bed.
Most garden books state that lettuce prefers 50-60 degrees F. for the best germination. Well, kiss that idea goodbye! This is South Texas. You are going to need a method that gives you a decent seed germination with soil temperatures approaching 90 degrees F. Here is how to accomplish that:
1. Level out the row with a rake. Rows should be a minimum of 12, preferably 18 inches apart.
2. Dig a three inch trench down the middle of the row with a hoe.
3. Take a five gallon bucket of water, or a hose, and fill the trench with water.
4. Repeat step #3. This insures a complete soaking of the planting bed and pre-irrigates the bed so the seed will not have to be “watered in.”
5. Rake enough soil back into the trench so the soil is level. You will need to do this while the trench is still soupy wet. Wait 5-10 minutes until the water has soaked in before you plant your lettuce seed.
6. Plant three or four seed (in clumps) every 6 inches down the length of the row on top of the wet soil. Just as you drop the seed, flick your wrist a little so the seed spreads out to about the circumference of a silver dollar.
7. Do not cover the seed except to use some dry soil with a little compost mixed together and apply a very light layer. Covering is actually not necessary. DO NOT WATER!
8. Press the lightly covered seed with something flat-bottomed like a mason jar, to make sure capillary action between the seed and the wet soil below the seed is established. (All that water you poured in the row acts as a reservoir for the seeds sitting on top of it.) You do not want to water on top of the seed because crusting of the soil might prohibit maximum germination of seed.
Crawford lettuce seed will sprout in 3-7 days. On the fourth or fifth day, if it hasn’t rained, give the row a good watering. Once the plants are up, you will need to thin them to one plant every 6 inches. Well-watered and well-spaced lettuce growing in well prepared beds should have few if any problems. Around the 50th day, you can start eating every other plant so the remaining plants are at least 12 inches apart. You will want to choose a couple of the best plants each year and save them for your seed plants. Seed plants are going to need at least 18 inch spacing. Always taste a leaf of each lettuce plant you are thinking of saving for seed and save only the best tasting, strongest, best looking plants for your seed collection.
Remember, Learn and Have Fun!
David Rodriguez is the County Extension Agent-Horticulture for Bexar County. He represents Texas Cooperative Extension with the Texas A&M University System. For any landscape or gardening information, call the Bexar County Master Gardeners Hotline at (210) 467-6575, e-mail questions to firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit our County Extension website at http://bexar-tx.tamu.edu/.