Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Lettuce All Start Gardening

Spring is upon us. Except for the snow we got yesterday and the blizzards across the whole of the UK (Scotland got gusts of wind up to 107 mph). But the week before was very Springy and the week after is supposed to be as well. This can only mean one thing: it's time to get gardening. Last week I began germinating many varieties of vegetables and herbs. Now most are up and reaching towards the sky (or in this case, the flourescent lighting in the kitchen.) I've still got six weeks until I can plant out, and much needs to be done in preparation before then. I'll be in Michigan for most of that time, so what shall I do? I'll make the bunnies do the work.

Our backyard is segmented into two sections, separated by chickenwire: one of grass lawn and the other of garden. The idea was that the bunnies could keep the grass lawn in check, and the garden would be safe from the rabbits. It worked beautifully in the summer, but now they have munched the lawn down to about 1/4 of an inch, and it is now mostly moss (but pretty moss.) The "garden" is just grass with a few remaining strawberry and turnip plants. So for the past two weeks I've kept the bunnies only on the garden side, and they have done a great job of trimming the grass down from about 6 inches to about 3. By mid-April they should eat the grass down to the ground, all the time "fertilizing" the ground as they munch (and they're really good at pooing. Sometimes they do it just to show off.) When it is time to plant, I'll have a big patch of nearly-bare pre-fertilized earth, and hopefully the lawn will have had enough of a rest for the bunnies to return to grazing it again. That's the plan at least. Here are Chockas (left) and Connie (right) munching down on the "garden."

As I continue to work on my garden, I'll create short plant profiles to post here because I just know you want to hear all about what kinds of vegetables are going into this year's garden. These aren't just any old vegetables, either. All are organic, and most are very old heirloom varieties. Many were developed in 18th and 19th centuries, and some are medieval in origin. I'll present them by category, my dear reader, so as not to overwhelm you with too many vegetables at once. This week, we'll take a look at one of our most misunderstood set of vegetables: the leafy greens.

Forellenschluss Lettuce
Lactuca sativa

This will be my first time trying Forellenschluss, which is a romaine-type lettuce of Austrian origin. The name means "spotted like a trout's back" in German. I've actually seen this variety in some of the pre-made salad mixes in groceries, and it's quite tasty. So far, these were my most lively germinators, putting up green in less than 48 hours after being sown.

Bronze Arrow Lettuce
Lactuca sativa

Bronze arrow is also a new variety. It's a loose-leaf variety, so I can just take a few leaves from the base when's it's time for a sandwich or a salad, leaving the plant intact. As you may be able to tell, I really like the darker lettuces that have shades of red, deep green, and sienna.

Four Seasons Lettuce
Lactuca sativa

This is, without a doubt, my favourite lettuce of all time. It always grows perkily, and tastes like sweet buttery velvet. In fact, it is a member of a family of lettuces aptly called butterheads. Last year, when I grew quite a bunch of this, I would make lettuce sandwiches with Four Seasons: two toasted slices of multi-grain bread, margarine, tomato puree, yeast pâté, lots of hotsauce, and about 20 layers of lettuce. It was soooo tasty and after eating it I could practically hear the nutrients and antioxidents fizzing away.

Red Deer Tongue Lettuce
Lactuca sativa

This one is one of the oldest lettuces, popular throughout medieval Europe, but new to me. Again, this is another looseleaf variety, so I can just harvest leaves as needed without damaging the plant by cutting the entire head. I've wanted to try this kind for many years.

Maraichère Frisée Très Fin Endive
Cirhorium endivia

Ok, so I had to have one leafy-green that was actually green and not mostly red. Endive can be quite nice, but on its own is a bit bitter. On a sandwich, or in a salad mix, it makes a nice contrast in shape and texture, and the bitterness is just right. The cool climate here should help keep it from going over-bitter, as it often did in Georgia. Just don't ask me to pronounce the full name.

Red Oak Leaf Lettuce
Lactuca sativa

A classic that has done very well for me both in Georgia and in England. Lettuces typically don't do well in the heat (like in Georgia). In the hot summers they become bitter, tough, and go to seed. England, on the other hand, is about the best climate for lettuce imaginable. The only problem is that the best climate for lettuce (cool and moist) is also the best climate for snails and slugs. And slugs love lettuce. Fortunately, Red Oak Leaf is fairly slug resistant. It is not, however, Chris resistant.

Red Russian Kale
Brassica napus

Ah, kale. The curly kind is often used as decorative greenery for the food at all-you-can-eat buffet restaurants. Little do most people know that the kale is often tastier than the food it surrounds. I've had much success with this variety in Georgia, and after being steamed it simply melts in the mouth. It is a favourite of slugs, so I'll have to watch over this one carefully. Last year's planting was mostly devoured by these critters before it was ready. An interesting fact about kale: it is the only plant that can grow leaves out of its leaves without the use of a stem. Really, leaves will just grow out of others at 90 degree angles. You can actually see a tiny, thin, light green one in this picture, just to the left of centre, growing near the red mid-rib.

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