Don’t let fall stop you from gardening in Colorado!
SALAD DAYS: A Lettuce Garden for the Fall
By Niki Hayden
Every summer, devoted vegetable gardeners anxiously hover over their tomatoes hoping they’ll ripen before a north wind blows in. While fretting over unripe fruit, we overlook the real star of the autumn garden: the lettuce crop. For the price of one head of lettuce in the supermarket, we can buy a seed packet and indulge ourselves in exquisite young lettuces for months.
Lettuces germinate quickly and prefer cool days and nights. They’ll germinate fast in our late summer days and stay crisp and leafy because they can avoid hot days, which encourage bolting. And while lettuces do require evenly moist soil, there’s less evaporation during cool temperatures.
If you’re concerned about water consumption, clever gardeners have discovered ways to water and mulch gardens that will cut down on the water bill. Drip irrigation is perfect for veggie gardens. But that should go together with mulch. Carol O’Meara, who works for the Colorado State Extension office in Boulder, lays down a few sheets of newspaper in between rows of vegetables. Then she piles on a layer of grass clippings. Her mulch decays by the time she is ready to till it in.
Lettuces do require a soil with some nitrogen and most Colorado soils are high in potassium, but low in nitrogen. That doesn’t mean that you have to dump heavy fertilizers into your garden. Lettuces only require leafy growth and a modest amount of nitrogen will serve that purpose. At one time, gardeners tilled in cow manure as the answer. But that has changed.
Today’s commercially prepared cow manure comes heavily salted. This is the consequence of cows that are fed heavy amounts of salt to produce meat and milk. The salt is concentrated in their urine and that is deposited on the manure. If you want to use animal manures to build up humus in your garden, try to find horse or llama manure, which will be of a much higher quality.
I’ve given up on using animal manures in the garden. I don’t have access to horse manure, and trying to make sure that manure is well composted to prevent an E-coli infection in the garden is more trouble than it’s worth. I’ve discovered other kinds of organic fertilizers are just as good and much easier. If you like to use animal products, there’s always blood meal, which bypasses the manure problems, or fish emulsion. Either will attract pets, if that’s a concern for you. But I’ve discovered that composting waste from fruit, vegetable peels and leaf debris in the yard adds humus and nitrogen. There’s also one approach so easy and worthwhile that every vegetable gardener should use it.
That’s the cover crop that you sow once the garden is through. Right after you’ve harvested your lettuces and it’s too frosty to be gardening, sow a quickly germinating cover crop like annual winter rye—far faster to germinate than other cover crops. This green manure will add nitrogen to your soil when you till by spring. It also prevents erosion when winds kick up in January. And it has no problems associated with any animal byproduct.
Once you’ve assessed your soil and water conditions, the easiest part is planting the seeds. This is one crop that you can sow directly into the garden. Lettuces are from the sunflower family and require some light to germinate. Sprinkle them where you want them and lightly dust soil on top, only enough to thinly cover the seeds but not prevent light from filtering through. Water lightly to dampen but not enough to wash away the seeds. In a few weeks they’ll be up and you can begin harvesting the tiny leaves for a mesclun salad, or wait until they are more mature and harvest an entire head.
Once you’ve tried a basic leafy lettuce, perhaps a mesclun mix, consider some of the heirloom lettuces and buttercrunch varieties. You’ll discover heirloom lettuces with red veins and crinkled leaves, oak-leaved lettuces with a distinctive shape, Romaine spears that last longer than most lettuces and tender head lettuces. The variety is dazzling.
Too often, the leafy clan has been overlooked as stalwarts for a Colorado garden because either they bolt quickly in hot weather or require too much water. If you’ve decided against greens for these reasons, try growing your lettuces in a partially shady area of your garden. That area may be too shady for nearly every other vegetable, but perfect for lettuces. And, as for water consumption, lettuces are at their best in spring and autumn when rain is more likely a part of our weather pattern.
It’s hard to imagine a crop that will give you more exquisite produce for the time and effort you exert. Next time you peruse the seed aisles, notice the varieties of greens. A nation of salad lovers has taken greens to new levels. And so should you.
Once you’ve discovered success with your greens, it’s time to try dressings. Here are a few. These dressings are based on four parts of oil to one part of vinegar or lemon juice. You may add more or less vinegar or lemon juice to suit the tartness you like on fresh greens. Each recipe will serve a salad for four people.
Sherry Vinegar with Mustard and Honey
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
½ teaspoon Dijon mustard or another tart mustard
1 teaspoon honey, any kind
½ teaspoon salt
Mix all together and pour onto washed greens just before serving.
Vinaigrette with Asian Flavors
4 tablespoons canola oil
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
½ teaspoon soy sauce
1 garlic clove crushed
1 slice fresh ginger, crushed
½ teaspoon honey
1 tablespoon sesame seeds, toasted
Mix together well and allow to steep for at least 15 minutes. Remove the garlic and ginger and then pour onto greens, tart greens like mizuna, arugula and spinach will go well with this dressing. It’s also great over a main dish like grilled or poached chicken breasts.
Lemon Dressing with Fresh Herbs
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons minced herbs: chives, cilantro, parsley, basil are good choices
1 garlic clove, cut in half
Salt and pepper to taste
Mix all together and let the dressing sit for about 10 minutes. Remove the garlic clove and pour over the salad. This is good with mixed greens and even a pasta salad.