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Posted at 7:00 AM ET, 12/ 6/2010

Groundwork: Growing lettuce in December

By Adrian Higgins




Wildfire Lettuce Mix in the author's community garden last week. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

My intention is to pick fresh lettuce from the garden for my Christmas meal, and I'm not heading into a greenhouse, lifting a cold frame or even removing a protective row cover. The long, warm fall, though now cold and leafless, has produced an ideal third season for growing cool season veggies in my community plot in Glover Park.

Recipe Included

Yes, this is a protected garden in the middle of the heat island, but my results are attainable pretty much throughout the metropolitan area. The key to a robust fall crop is deep rich soil, even moisture, especially when the plants are young, and getting them well established before it turns cool. For lettuce, this means sowing the seed at least six weeks before the first frost, giving them a week or so to germinate and four to five weeks to reach baby stage. I sowed mine between late August and mid-September, and getting this window right is critical to their success.

Sow them too early and the seedlings crash in the heat. Sow them too late and they don't reach a good size for harvesting before it gets too cold. Lettuce is not as cold-hardy as spinach, chard or other salad greens. Lettuce will take a few degrees of frost and will be edible as long as the temperature doesn't get much below 25 degrees. I won't get the heads past January unless I protect them in some fashion. I may rig hoops and cover them with row covers simply because I have so much lettuce and it is so good when it's fresh.

For fall-grown lettuce, pick varieties that are proven cold-tolerant. In the fall, I also tend to grow heading lettuce, which is harvested all at once. In the spring, I limit my lettuce varieties to loose-leaf types, which are harvested sequentially, a leaf at a time (cut and come again) until the heat of June causes it to bolt. Other gardeners may disagree, but I think the spring turns hot too abruptly for heading lettuce to be reliable.

My clear winner this autumn is a small, upright Romaine or cos variety named Winter Density. It is considered a cos-Bibb type, and forms upright rosettes on crunchy green leaves. It's beautiful, which is always a plus in the garden. I sowed a bed that is 8 feet long and 3 feet wide, and have raised at least 200 plants after thinning. I have been plucking lettuce heads from this modest patch for at least six weeks and I still have about 100 heads left. I highly recommend this cold-tolerant variety.


Winter Density lettuce, sown in August and producing from mid-October to the end of December and beyond, with protection. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

My second variety is a butter head named Australe. It forms a green rosette tinged red, and it's lovely, though slow to mature. I'm only now taking full-size heads.

The third is a medley of pretty chartreuse and red varieties, blended for their beauty, and sold by Johnny's as Wildfire Lettuce Mix. It consists of deep red varieties such as Cobham Red Oak and Blackjack and the Royal Oak Leaf, now making distinctive clusters of pointed, light green leaves.

I look at my lettuce crop and consider its lesson: No matter how bad the main growing season may be -- and this year was awful -- the vegetable garden will always give you a second chance.

-- Adrian Higgins

Asian Lettuce Salad
6 to 8 servings

This is a crunchy salad that would be perfect as an accompaniment to the main course or, with the addition of one of the proteins, a main dish by itself. The zesty salad dressing is just one of many interesting recipes found in a new vegetarian cookbook by Troth Wells. It is filled with simple, international, vegetarian recipes.

Most of the ingredients are readily available in grocery stores and international markets.

Adapted from Wells's "One World Vegetarian Cookbook" (Interlink, 2010).

For the dressing
3 medium cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1-inch piece peeled ginger root, coarsely chopped
Freshly squeezed juice of 1/2 to 1 lemon (2 tablespoons)
2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce or tamari
2 tablespoons tahini
1/3 cup olive oil, or more as needed

For the salad
1 large large head romaine lettuce (outer leaves discarded if discolored or torn), washed and dried then cut crosswise into thin ribbons
2 baby bok choy, washed, dried and cored, then cut crosswise into bite-size ribbons
1 medium cucumber, peeled and cut crosswise into thin rounds
2 medium carrots, cut crosswise into thin coins
1 medium red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and cut into thin slices
3 scallions (white and light-green parts), cut crosswise into thin slices
1/4 cup chopped cilantro or flat-leaf parsley leaves
1 1/2 cups peeled and deveined cooked small shrimp (optional)

For the dressing: Combine the garlic, ginger, lemon juice, soy sauce or tamari and tahini in a blender or food processor. Puree to a paste. With the motor running, gradually add the oil to form a pourable dressing. Add oil as needed.

For the salad: Combine the lettuce, bok choy, cucumber, carrots, red bell pepper, scallions, cilantro or parsley and the shrimp, if desired, in a large salad bowl.

Drizzle the dressing over the salad ingredients; toss to coat evenly.

Serve immediately.

By Adrian Higgins  | December 6, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork  | Tags:  Adrian Higgins, Groundwork  
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