Saturday, March 31, 2012

I fail at lettuce

I've had no trouble growing tomatoes, herbs, peas, or beans. So I thought this gardening thing was easy. But then I came up against lettuce.

Really, it shouldn't be too hard. Everyone grows lettuce. The gardening books have no special warnings, and act like growing lettuce can be easily described in three paragraphs before moving on to melons.

I tried to grow it last fall. I didn't know what date to start it on, so I sowed more every week or so throughout August and September. I tried different methods. I planted it 1/4 inch deep, 1/8 inch deep, sprinkled a dusting of fine soil over it, or left it right on the surface. I tried two different varieties (Mignonette Bronze and iceberg). In the end, I got about six seedlings, of which three actually made it so far as to be eaten. They made a very small salad.

This year, I've tried more things. I tried them early, direct-seeded in the garden, but no luck. I figured the soil hadn't had time to warm. I started them inside, and they did okay. That is, the iceberg lettuce sprouted, grew leggy, and collapsed before it had even unfolded its cotyledons. The Mignonette, despite being leggy as well (the light isn't great in any room of the house, and even with being carried from sunny spot to sunny spot all day, it's definitely not getting enough) actually did develop a few spindly true leaves, so I set it out and am hoping for the best. The first few days were like a horror movie ... every day I'd go out, and there would be one fewer. Vanished without a trace. But now I have 12 that look like they're going to pull through.

I direct-seeded some more lettuce two weeks ago, with no results. I've done similarly with carrots and spinach. I'm beginning to think there is just a rule around here: If it comes in a tiny seed, you will not be able to grow it. I mean, why would it survive? These seedlings are so teeny tiny when they sprout. A raindrop would flatten them. (Perhaps that's what happened.) Or wash the seeds away. The wind blows the mulch over them and smothers them. The sun is apparently too much for them. The seedbed gets dry and crusted if I don't water it really often, but if I do water it, am I just washing all the seeds away? (It's really hard to achieve a fine mist over the seedbed with just my thumb in the hose, but I don't have a proper sprayer or a watering can. I'll probably have to spring for those if I ever want to grow anything from seed.) I can sprout pretty much any seed in purchased soil, but my garden soil is so full of clay, I'm hardly surprised to find nothing is growing there.

Otherwise, my garden's going fine. My peas are all up and looking hearty. I know I shouldn't have done it so early, but I planted some beans just for kicks when it was hot. It promptly turned cooler again, so I will probably have to replant those. I also transplanted my herbs. I've been growing them inside since February, and they haven't been doing too well, despite my setting them outside every sunny day. When I turned them out of their sour cream containers, I mean pots, I saw the trouble. Though there wasn't much to see on the surface, their roots had filled up all the available space. So they should be much happier there in my garden. As an added bonus, the sky is not going to forget to water them or expose them to the sun the way I tend to do. My usual habit of total neglect does much better outdoors than in.

Today I peeled up the newspaper and mulch in the bed where the green peppers will grow. It's the only part left completely undug. I did the other half of that bed, which is destined for pumpkins, by just cutting the sod off and turning it over before replacing the mulch. I had to call in John's assistance for the tomato-and-cucumber bed, where he did the same thing. But I wasn't up to digging the pepper bed, and there was grass sticking up in rips in the newspaper. I figured it was pretty much a lost cause. Turns out, except for those few isolated grass clumps I could see, most everything was decomposed under there. There was some white, withered grass, which I carelessly yanked up some handfuls of and left the rest. I pulled up the big clumps that were sticking through and filled in the gaps in the newspaper. I honestly don't think I'll bother digging there at all. The soil texture looks great. Of course, if I remove the mulch, the grass will grow again. That stuff is really invasive, and the roots are still there waiting for a chance. The onion grass is even worse. But if I leave the mulch right where it is, and just cut holes to stick the pepper plants in ... it might work a lot better than trying to remove the paper and add a new mulch. I can do the same with the tomatoes in the other bed, leaving the newspaper on all summer. I'll just have to clear spots for the cucumbers and the pumpkins, since those are direct-seeded.

This is my first season trying to do a "full" garden with all the things I want to grow. I have to admit, I'm greener than I thought, even after spending all winter reading gardening books, making charts and calendars, and daydreaming. There isn't a ton of work -- less than I'd like, in fact, because I'm so anxious to get moving -- but I'm realizing I don't really know what I'm doing.

Can you grow lettuce? What's your secret?

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