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Lettuce begin

Calling all rabbit-food lovers--it is time to get in the garden. Lettuce is a great start for any garden, and a wonderful addition to the kitchen. Nothing can beat fresh lettuce harvested from the backyard garden. It is also one of the easiest crops to grow in Oklahoma.

Lettuce varieties can generally be categorized into four groups: crisphead, butterhead, romaine and leaf. Each group has different growth patterns and ranges of flavors. Leaf lettuce is the group that performs best in Oklahoma. It forms a loosely bunched group of leaves that create new growth from the center of the bunch. Other groups will readily bolt, or flower as temperatures rise, which slows the production of the leafy part we like to enjoy. Unlike tomatoes or peppers this plant is grown for the leaves, not the fruit it produces.

All lettuces are considered cool season plants, meaning they prefer to grow under cool, moist conditions. Lettuce seedlings can tolerate a light frost, but temperatures between 45 F and 65 F are ideal. Feb. 15 to March 10 are the best dates for seeding lettuce. A fall crop of lettuce can also be grown beginning in mid August. Now if you are an expert gardener, like my father-in-law, you might have kept your greens growing since the fall in a cold frame. He has had lettuce and spinach growing through the winter in his backyard. Some cold injury can occur depending on the level of insulation the cold frame provides.

Lettuce seeds can be purchased through catalogs or at local garden centers. It is an excellent crop to grow, because a large variety of plants can be achieved with very minimal input. The colors can range from dark green, to vibrant lime, then to a bronze and on into the reds. It is not hard to imagine the beautiful display this would bring to a spring garden as well as a heaping salad bowl.

Lettuce seed can be planted directly in the garden. There is no need to start the seeds indoors. Because the seeds are so small, it is important to prepare the seed bed properly. Large clods of soil, rocks or sticks can prevent the seed from making sufficient contact with the soil. These items should be removed, and the bed can be fluffed or cultivated to loosen the soil.

Next smooth the surface of the soil, either with the back of a rake or the long handle of any garden tool works great. The soil can now receive a healthy soaking before the seeds are planted. This is done because the seeds are so tiny, they can be relocated easily by a heavy watering after planting.

Lettuce is a bit backwards from most seeds that are directly planted in the garden. The seeds of lettuce require light to germinate, as opposed to other seeds that are planted below soil level. By watering before seeding, the seeds will stick when they touch the soil. However it is still recommended to provide seeds with a light sprinkling of water ensure soil contact.

Planting the lettuce in rows will make for easier harvesting, but it is not required. The seeds can literally be scattered by hand on the soil. (Did I mention this was a very easy crop to grow--no bending required.) The seed bed should be kept moist to promote germination. Once the plants emerge, it may be necessary to thin the crop to allow 3-6 inches between each green youngster.

Harvesting leaf lettuce is almost as easy as planting it. The more mature leaves will be around the outside of the plant. By only picking the exterior leaves each time, the young leaves will continue to grow and the plant will have a longer life. Lettuce plantings may also be staggered. This means that a new bunch of seeds can be planted every 7 to 10 days until mid March.

Lettuce is simply a great crop to grow whether you have a half acre garden, a cold frame in the backyard or containers on the porch. Now--lettuce begin the vegetable season with a fresh crop of home-grown greens.

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