Deb Babcock's gardening column appears Thursdays in Steamboat Today.
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At one time, it's my understanding, the Yampa Valley was a big producer of salad greens and supplied wholesalers throughout the Front Range with sweet, tasty salad fixings. Once the growers in California and other more temperate climates mastered ways to mass produce and mass distribute lettuce year-round, it was difficult for local producers to compete.
If you've ever eaten lettuce harvested from the garden just a few minutes before your meal, you know how tasty this vegetable can be.
The easiest lettuce to grow in a Steamboat garden is leaf lettuce. It is fast-growing and long-lasting and requires very little fuss and bother. Leaf colors range from a light green to red or bronze hues and can be found in cultivars with frilled leaves, crinkled or deeply-lobed.
Recommended cultivars of leaf lettuce include Salad Bowl, Green Ice, Oak Leaf, Black Seeded Simpson, Red Sails, Lollo Russo, Ruby and Red Fire.
Romaine, or cos lettuce, is another fairly easy-to-grow lettuce, forming an upright head of wavy, tightly folded leaves. Of the four kinds of lettuce, this is considered the sweetest. Recommended cultivars of this lettuce include Parris Island Cos, Cimmaron, Green Towers and Valmaine.
Butterhead, or Bibb lettuce, and Crisphead, or iceberg lettuce, grow in round heads, but they are more difficult to grow. They take longer to mature, and the leaves will turn quite bitter if temperatures are too hot.
Lettuce seed can be planted as soon as the soil can be worked, even if the temperatures still are cool. The seedlings can tolerate a light frost. To ensure you have salad makings all season long, consider follow-up plantings every 10 days or so.
Be sure to weed aggressively as lettuce does not compete well with garden weeds. After the seedlings grow large enough to touch one another, thin so plants are 4 to 8 inches apart. Thinning will make the greens tastier. Also, if you plant your lettuce so it grows in the shade of some taller plants, you'll help keep the leaves and the soil cooler for a more tender, sweeter taste.
The soil should be loose with lots of organic matter, well-drained and moist but not soggy. This vegetable does not have a very big root system, so it does need regular watering and nutrients (especially nitrogen) to grow properly. Tipburn (where part of the leaf dies back) can be a problem when watering is sporadic.
You may harvest the lettuce when it is full-size yet still young and tender. (Read the seed packet for an indication of when to begin harvesting; the Salad Bowl seeds I purchased recently say it takes 45 days to maturity.)
Lettuce is one of the most nutritious of vegetables we can grow here, full of Vitamin A (an antioxidant) and potassium. And, it's so good. Try it in your vegetable garden this year.
Deb Babcock is a Master Gardener through the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension office in Routt County. Questions? Call 879-0825.