This garden stalwart takes root at the mere spill of a seed packet no matter what the season, and never more so than now, writes Mat Pember.
There isn't too much to get excited about in the garden in winter, but there is lettuce, the Border collie of the vegetable world - loyal and easy to please. Throw any season at a lettuce and you're bound to get some produce in return. In fact, lettuce seems to thrive best in winter and is crunchier than ever come August.
If you go to the supermarket to buy a head of lettuce, you'll have three, maybe four choices. Go to a good nursery and there are enough varieties to start a leafy cult. Lettuces are categorised as either hearting (iceberg, for example) or non-hearting (mignonette, say), which indicates how they should be harvested: hearting lettuces should be plucked as whole heads, while non-hearting lettuces are harvested in our preferred leaf-by-leaf manner. Having said that, with a home vegetable patch you're more likely to pick all lettuces leaf by leaf to encourage a perpetual harvest.
The hardest part about growing lettuce at this time of year, aside from choosing the variety, is dragging yourself outside in the cold to plant it.
But once it's in the patch, the weather gods take care of the rest. Being a leaf vegetable, lettuce needs nitrogen to satisfy its needs, so mix compost or slow-release chook manure into the patch before planting, then splash the seedlings with liquid seaweed concentrate every couple of weeks.
Choose the sunniest spot available, but lettuce also tolerates partial shade. If you can't find a spot in direct sunlight, choose one that gets reflective light, and avoid planting lettuces too close to established crops. Despite the undemanding shallow root zones of lettuce, larger, hungrier crops will bully it about.
All lettuces germinate and grow with such ease that you needn't do more than spill a packet of seeds and you'll end up with a crop. If you want to be a bit more precise, create shallow trenches with your fingertip no more than a centimetre deep and 15 centimetres apart, and place a couple of seeds every 10 to 15 centimetres; they're usually minute, so leave the gloves off. However, given how well lettuce seedlings cope with transplanting (and our need for instant gratification), we prefer planting seedlings rather than seeds.
Separate the plants in the punnet and space out to the required distance. Once in the ground, water them well and continue to do so every couple of days, or as the weather demands. Since we're still locked in winter, the patch will hold on to moisture, so the greatest risk is overwatering seedlings and having them rot. Unlike an automated irrigation system that comes on regardless of the conditions, use your human senses to see what's going on. Overwatering is often an invitation for snails and slugs to venture around the patch, and sweet lettuces are a favoured snack.
Within a month - perhaps less if there are early signs of spring - the lettuces will be ready for the first harvest. Start with the outer, more mature leaves to free up energy for the next generation to come through. If you find that your plants are becoming congested, harvest some as entire heads to make space for the others to thrive. If you want dense hearts, you'll need to be patient - it's usually a two to three-month commitment.
As spring breaks through, your lettuces will intensify in texture and flavour. The longer they're left in the ground, the tougher and more bitter the leaves become, so keep your plants in the ground for as long as your palate can cope. By spring, there will be plenty of other goodies in the patch to tempt you, but remember: there will always be lettuce.
TIP OF THE MONTH: MAKING COMPOST
The art of making compost is not unlike that of making bread. Much like fine-tuning a mix of yeast, flour and water to create the ultimate dough, a master compost-maker will strike a fine balance between green and brown wastes, creating compost utopia. Unfortunately, too many of us are not great at making compost (or bread), so here are some tips.
If your compost is too wet, it will get stinky and won't break down properly; if it's too dry, nothing will happen and it will never become compost. Your compost should feel damp, not wet.
The right mix
Much like making the perfect loaf of bread with the right balance of ingredients, the first thing to remember when making compost is that it isn't just about the A-lister kitchen scraps - green waste. The less-fancied scraps also require consideration. Brown waste, which includes straw, shredded paper and dried leaves, is essentially the compost-maker's flour. Mixed with green waste, it helps create the perfect conditions for compost to thrive.