Love And Lettuce

Gorgeous Greens For Health And Happiness

How are you feeling these days? Thought so. Me too. I met my new doctor last week and was struck by her gentle questions about my mental and emotional health. My appointment was on Tuesday and she said she’d already seen four patients that week with what she described as climate and/or political depression. Well, yeah. She’s talking with colleagues and hearing similar findings, and says our distress is symptomatic of a national epidemic.

Another national epidemic concerns food safety, perhaps most notably with Romaine lettuce, which has been fingered in several recent E. coli outbreaks. Though the government investigation is still ongoing, there are multiple possible causes for E. coli contamination, from water passing through areas where livestock is grazing to field contamination from wild animals and birds (not to mention humans; many growers haven’t supplied field toilet facilities, but that’s changing). This fits right into my own ecological grief; when even organic produce may not be safe, what can we trust? Happily, there’s a simple solution: Grow your own. One great thing about greens is that they can be grown in very little space, and many will flourish in containers on a balcony or deck where garden space is limited.

A Better Way

For me, container grown greens perform best in wide pots that aren’t too deep; three- or five-gallon pots rather than tree pots or huge, tall mother pots. Fill pots with potting soil or a container soil mix, and use fresh soil each year, recycling last year’s into the compost heap. Space your starts about a foot apart in each direction, or about 8 inches for mini head types, and you’ll be harvesting in a few weeks. Cut-and-come-again loose leaf types like ruffled, vigorous Red Dog and lime green Lollo Bionda will remain productive for months, while kales will winter over, staying productive until they bloom in spring. Head lettuces can be replaced with fresh starts after harvest, but I like to let a few bolting looseleaf lettuces bloom, since pollinators of many kinds find flowering greens irresistible. You can also toss a few blossoms into salads or use them to garnish soups, with a few snippets of chives, thyme, or oregano.

Since my family is very fond of Romaine lettuce, I’m planting old favorites as well as some new-to-me varieties. We love Outredgeous red Romaine, a lightly ruffled, perfectly textured variety that can be picked as baby lettuce in just a few weeks, but takes 6-8 weeks to head up fully. Gorgeous, crisp and juicy, compact Pomegranate Crunch is one of our favorites for flavor, texture and color. An intriguing companion, Lavalamp, is speckled and streaked with red and yellow and remains tender and sweet even when a little over-mature (ask me how I know). Because my space is very limited, I’m planting some mini head Romaines, including deep red Truchas, bronze-red Breen, and fresh green Dragoon, a n especially crisp variety that provide just enough for sandwiches or a salad.

On Beyond Romaine

We like a lot of contrast in our daily salads, so I cram in as many textures and colors as I can into our greens patch. I especially like the Salanovas, which are utterly reliable and perfect for small spaces, as even in a narrow window-box, they reman productive for way longer than most lettuces. Of course I’m adding velvety, flavorful butterheads such as deep green Newham, which forms perfect, plump heads, and grass green Victoria, with tight, rounded heads like plump rosebuds. My grandkids love to pick and eat the fat little heads of Tom Thumb, a mini butterhead with tender, juicy leaves. Though I’m not a big frisee fan in general, I do enjoy tender, bitter-sweet Endive Frisee, especially if I remember to fasten the outer leaves over the inner ones to blanch them for a week or two. Curly Escarole Natacha blanches its own inner foliage and is as tender as any lettuce when young (steam or braise the older heads for a lovely side dish). Add an oakleaf or two, a few looseleaf types, and daily picking becomes an outright pleasure.

Most of my overwintered kale is still going strong, especially Black Magic, an especially compact form of dragonskin kale that fits well in small gardens. The long, narrow, iron-green leaves are even more delicious after a touch of frost, as are the ruffly, super crisp, blue-green leaves of Edibliss Italian Pink, which boasts beautiful hot pink stems and veins that sing in salads and stir fries. I’m still harvesting from Lacinato Rainbow, and my beloved perennial Kosmic Kale is going strong as well, producing masses of very tender cream and jade green foliage, come sun, come rain, come frost and snow. How does happiness fit into all this? For me, wellbeing and happiness come most readily when I’m in the garden daily, at least for the few minutes it takes to pick enough greens for soup or salad or whatever I’m making. Wellbeing and happiness spontaneously arrive when I’m making and feeding my family wholesome, beautiful food from my wholesome, beautiful garden. Food security is more than having access to food in emergencies (though these days, I feel like Red Alert could come at any moment). It’s also about feeling secure that our food is safe, nutritious, free from pesticides, nontoxic to pollinators and people alike. That feels sacred, maybe even holy. Onward!

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3 Responses to Love And Lettuce

  1. Deirdre says:

    A timely blog for me; I am about to start growing salad greens again after a horrifically hot summer (Sydney, Australia) where nothing at all grew for several months and it was too warm for most crops. Thankfully, we have just had rain (almost too much?!) and everything is starting to grow once more. I love to pick salad leaves; it is a joy.

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      And I’m so glad you finally got some rain! Hopefully we humans are remembering how precious water is and we will start protecting it all over the world.

  2. Diane Hooper says:

    Enjoyable column Ann,
    I love greens, thank you for the good pointers.
    Cheers and hugs,
    Diane

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