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Immaculate Conception at night by Vincent Embser

The Upland Gardener: Growing Lettuce in the Winter

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by M. L. Wells, Master gardener volunteer Allegany County Cornell Cooperative Extension

In spite of growing veggies for more than half a century, until three years ago I had not tried lettuce indoors in winter. So here it is the end of the year and there they are–four weeks old and two inches high. The seeds sprouted in four days but then, as if the plants knew, it was not the right time of year and grew very slowly. Come mid-January I should be able to harvest my first salad of the year!

What needs doing for this to happen?

(1) Last November before freeze-up, I brought in several buckets of good garden soil–I tried to leave the worms behind! (2) I use sixteen-ounce sour cream containers. I break the rules and do not punch holes in the bottom. Learn not to over-water! (3) Usually, I sterilize the soil by placing damp soil in the oven at 180 degrees F for one hour. This year I skipped the heat treatment. Results? Other seeds sprouted…. (4) Fill cups, sow several seeds each and cover lightly (1/4 inch). Water but don’t drown! Place in (warm) room, 60–70 degrees F. (5) Lettuce germinates in three to five days. Hang plain-old florescent lights three inches above tops of plants. Run 14 hours a day. (6) After a week or so, thin to one plant. (7) In six weeks or so, get the scissors and cut back to one inch. Munch, munch–yum, yum. It will take several plants for a meal. You can probably take three to four more harvests at weekly intervals until the Ides of March (middle of the month) are upon us. I wonder if Caesar’s last meal was a salad.

I have found the leaf lettuces do best–they grow quickly–cut and come again. Two of my favorites are Black-Seeded Simpson, a pale, bright green, frilly variety and Merlot, a dark burgundy, who says lettuce has to be green? 

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