Deb Babcock's gardening column appears Mondays in Steamboat Today.
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The other night I attended a cooking class at City Cafe put on by chefs Nicolette and Olivia. Our first course was a Mache salad, which I loved and didn’t know much about. The leaves were so tender and sweet with just a hint of spiciness (much milder than arugula). It’s available at our local grocery stores in the bagged and boxed lettuce section if you want to try it before planting it in your garden. It’s highly perishable, so is best if eaten within a couple days of purchase.
A native of France cultivated since the 1600s under the name “Doucette,” Mache (Valerianella locusta), is a non-lettuce salad green also called lamb’s lettuce and corn salad. It grows very close to the ground and forms a rosette of six to eight delicate leaves on a thin stem. In California where it is starting to become a very popular production crop, it is expensive to cultivate because mechanical pickers do not work very well with low growing plants. So this is one of the more expensive salad greens on the market.
Cold-tolerant, the small seeded variety of Mache can withstand frost, which makes it a perfect salad green for growing in our high country mountains. The seeds take 60 days to mature, but as with many lettuces, it can be picked and eaten before maturity. And because it is cold-tolerant, it can be planted well before our June 10 optimum planting date for Routt County.
Many local gardeners spread lettuce seeds in the fall and cover them with burlap or a cold frame so these plants will be among the first to sprout and the first that can be harvested for the table. Or you can put them in just as soon as the soil thaws in your home garden and cover them to keep the seeds warm enough to start germinating. Many lettuce lovers then plant seeds every couple of weeks to assure a steady supply of fresh lettuce throughout our growing season.
Another easy 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 cultivators with frilled leaves, crinkled or deeply-lobed.
Recommended cultivators 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. Romaine is considered one of the sweeter leaf lettuces. Recommended cultivators of this lettuce include Parris Island Cos, Cimmaron, Green Towers and Valmaine.
Butterhead or Bibb lettuce and Crisphead or iceberg lettuce both grow in round heads but are more difficult to grow. They take longer to mature, and the leaves will turn quite bitter if temperatures are too warm.
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 four to eight 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 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 — or maybe even a little earlier before full maturity. (Read the seed packet for an indication of when to begin harvesting.)
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 volunteer Master Gardener through the CSU Extension Routt County. Call 970-879-0825 with questions, or email email@example.com