Fall and winter lettuce: Food for the gods and us mortals
“I gave the barrow-girl two quid for it,
a frisée lettuce, a wild intricate wheel,
nature’s very own bright-green mandala.
A lot of money but I paid up gladly”
— Maurice Riordan, “The Lettuce,” 2000
Frisée, which is known in the U.S. as curly endive for narrow-leaved varieties and escarole for broad-leaved varieties, is not actually a species of lettuce (Lactuca sativa); rather, it’s a species of chicory (Cichorium endivia) alongside other bitter-tasting leafy vegetables such as radicchio.
Despite the misnomer, the speaker in Maurice Riordan’s poem “The Lettuce” makes it clear that he considers the extravagant price he paid — $2.68 in U.S. currency 20 years ago — well worth it. He says,
“I came to think of it as tribute: a mean,
but bearable, percentage exacted by
my personal luck-god, who’d bring us through
that winter, and the next."
In fact, the gods have been paid homage with lettuce since 2000 B.C.E. when Egyptian males offered up wild lettuce to Min, the god of fertility, who held the plant sacred for its aphrodisiacal qualities. It’s unclear whether Riordan was referring to Min as his “personal luck-god,” but it would certainly add another layer of meaning to the poem.
Frisées and lettuces are, indeed, “bright-green mandalas,” but they also come in colors other than green, including reds, purples, yellows and multicolored varieties. Growing “intricate wheels” of leafy vegetables adds vibrancy to a fall garden, and they’re not difficult to grow during autumn’s cooler weather. So, gardeners, it’s time to plant lettuces and other leafy vegetables to stretch your harvesting into a third and fourth season.
Ancient Egyptians ate wild lettuce, the tall, prickly weed often seen in empty lots and along roadsides. During the last four millennia, though, wild lettuce has been cultivated to now include many cultivars within five categories, grouped by the way the “mandala” — or lettuce head — is shaped: 1) crispheads/icebergs; 2) Batavian/summercrisps; 3) butterhead/bibb/Boston; 4) romaine/cos; and 5) loose-leaf/oakleaf.
Of these, the last two types of lettuces and butterhead-romaine hybrids are best for fall and winter gardening because they have less tendency to rot in wet weather, and they hold up better in cold weather. I particularly like growing loose-leaf lettuces during the fall and winter as I’m able to harvest the outer leaves and allow the inner leaves to continue growing for another harvest later (sometimes referred to as the cut-and-come-again method).
Restoration Seeds and Siskiyou Seeds are two local seed companies that specialize in organic, open-pollinated and heirloom seeds; both offer a variety of colorful lettuces that will grow well in our area for fall and winter harvests.
My favorites are:
Loose-leaf/oakleaf - ‘Strela Green’ (spear-shaped, light-green leaves); ‘Cerise’ (cherry-colored oakleaf); ‘New Red Fire’ (Frilly, dark wine leaves); ‘Antares’ (red and green frilly leaves); and ‘Devil’s Ears’ (deer-tongue, shiny red/green leaves).
Romaine/cos - ‘Flashy Trout Back’ (green and purple splotched); ‘Little Leprechaun’ (green leaf base and red leaves); ‘Thurinus’ (dark red); ‘Petite Rouge’ (red and green oval leaves); ‘Red Rosie MT10’ (red and green bicolor); ‘Outredgeous’ (deep red); and ‘Majestic Red’ (green leaf bases and red/bronze tips).
Butterhead-romaine hybrids - ‘Blushed Butter Cos’(red and green leaves); ‘Winter Density’ (smaller size, green leaves); and ‘Emerald Fan’ (larger size, light-green shiny leaves).
My preferred way to plant lettuce in the fall is to sow seeds directly into vegetable beds that have been cleared of weeds and freshened with compost worked into the top three inches of soil. I also add bone meal to the compost mix to promote strong root growth. Water the bed thoroughly before scattering seeds in the bed and covering with a quarter-inch of soil. Floating row cover can be placed over the seed beds to protect the seedlings from late summer heat and from slugs, which are the top insect pests in fall gardens with leafy vegetables. A layer of mulch provides added protections for plants.
Eliot Coleman, author of “The New Organic Grower” (3rd edition, 2018), recommends the following schedule for planting lettuce that will continue producing throughout fall/winter in unheated greenhouses, cold frames, tunnel rows and containers: sow seeds every three days Sept. 1-10, every 2 days Sept. 11-18, every 3 days Sept. 19-Oct. 10, every 7 days Oct. 11-Nov. 15, and every 10 days from Nov. 15-Dec. 15.
Be sure to thin lettuce seedlings to 10-12 inches apart to give them room to mature. Keep the soil moist, and apply a high-nitrogen tea or fertilizer (such as fish emulsion and liquid kelp) every two weeks.
Harvest lettuce leaves in the morning and soak in cool water for 15 minutes immediately after harvesting. Drain off excess water (a salad spinner works well for this) and store in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to three days.
In addition to sowing lettuce seeds, plant starts of these vibrantly colored chicories for fall/winter harvests: ‘Nina Frisée’ and ‘Duibusson’ endives; ‘Rossa di Treviso’ and ‘Late Luisa’ radicchios. Direct sow like lettuce every three weeks until Dec. 15; water and replenish the soil with nutrients the same as lettuce.
Lettuces are one of the most cost-effective, space-efficient crops for the home gardener to grow. This may be particularly true for fall lettuce crops that aren’t as likely to bolt from the heat or get eaten up by insects. If you’ve ever thought about growing a fall/winter garden, lettuces will help you accomplish that goal, with a little help from your personal luck-god.
Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, check out her podcasts at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener and her website at www.literarygardener.com.