Friday, January 1, 2010

Get Growing in January

The Get Growing Series

Welcome to our second Get Growing entry. This series will span 12 months, and is designed to help aspiring vegetable gardeners get out of the kitchen and into the garden. On the first of each month, we will discuss one garden project for the novice vegetable gardener. Because we are located in Houston, Texas, our growing conditions differ from many parts of the English-speaking world. To help guide gardeners in cooler climates, our Get Growing partner is Daphne of Daphne's Dandelions. Daphne gardens in Boston, and she will be providing monthly advice for Northern gardeners (although her excellent site is a wonderful resource for gardeners everywhere). For Get Growing in January, Daphne discusses starting seeds indoors.  Regardless of where you live, her advice is invaluable.

Plant Lettuce Seeds this Month

To be honest, it is hard to feel like gardening right now.  The temperature changes dramatically from day to day, it is often overcast, and the ground is covered with fallen leaves and pine needles.  We feel like staying inside and making soup right now rather than working outside.  But if you live in Zone 9, this is the ideal time to start lettuce seeds.  There is no one variety in particular that we recommend.  Instead, we suggest you select varieties which will provide lots of color and texture for your salads.  You can look at our sidebar to see some of the lettuces we are growing, but please don't feel obliged to make the same selections.  Seed catalogs will provide you with almost overwhelming choices.  Make sure you consider arugula, leafy chicories such as dandelion greens, and cress in addition to traditional lettuce.  Asian greens are also an excellent option (see our Mizuna below).

Lettuce Growing Tips

The challenge with growing lettuce is not in the seed selection so much as the planting.  This is especially true if you're a novice gardener not accumstomed to working with miniscule seeds.  Here are a few helpful suggestions:
  1. Small seeds are very difficult to work with, so you often end up planting too many seeds if you try to do it by hand.  This is wasteful, and it means having to thin your seedlings later.  Several seed companies offer seed dosers.  They cost about $15, and they will help you plant just one seed at a time.  This means you will use fewer seeds, and you will save a lot of time and effort later because you won't have to thin your seedlings.   Or do it the old-fashioned way (like we do), and just do your best to space out the seeds.  It's not quite as economical, and you'll have to thin your seedlings when they get too crowded.
  2. Small seeds need to be planted at the correct depth. Little seeds produce little seedlings, and if the seeds are planted too deeply, the seedlings will never be able to penetrate the soil.  So unlike last month's planting project (peas) where the seeds were very forgiving, planting depth here is very important.  Choose a location that gets some sun with loose, friable soil and use a stick to make a shallow trough for the seeds.  Once the seeds are in, use the soil on either side of your trough to barely cover the seeds.  Tamp the soil down lightly, then very gently water them in -- the seeds are so little, it's easy to dislodge them with a blast from the hose.
  3. If your soil is too heavy for these little seeds, one solution is to add a very thin layer of store-bought garden soil on top of your soil.  Purchased soil isn't cheap, so buy just enough to create a very thin layer of top soil.  Gently press your seeds into this soil.  Consider working a layer of grass clippings, leaves and pine needles into your soil before adding this extra layer of soil.  This will provide your seedlings with lots of nutrients as the organic material breaks down.  It will also create the loose, friable soil you need for your next round of planting.
  4. If you live in an area that has heavy rains like we do, consider raised beds to save your lettuce seedlings from drowning.
  5. If you're nervous about planting the seeds directly in the garden, you can always start them in pots.  This is a very labor-intensive approach because you have to fill the pots with soil, keep them watered, and then transplant the seedlings.  It's also expensive because you need to buy the potting soil and pots (although you can recycle old grower pots like we do).  But, your efforts will be rewarded with excellent germination and healthy seedlings.  This approach works particularly well if you have a small garden and don't need to grow hundreds of seedlings. 
  6. In fact, if you have a small garden, you can just leave your lettuce in the pots.  You'll want to harvest when the lettuce is still small, but this way you can grow letttuce on a balcony or anywhere you can squeeze in the plants.  We are growing mache in a windowbox that gets only morning sun, and it is thriving. 
Lettuce Seedlings
  1. Keep seedlings well watered.  Leafy greens are mostly water, so they need to remain hydrated.  At this time of year here in Houston, nature provides us with more than enough rain for our seedlings.  But if you live in an arid climate, don't forget to water your lettuce.   The warmer the ambient temperature, the more often you'll need to water, so as it warms up in the spring, all Zone 9 gardeners will need to provide adequate moisture for their lettuce plants.
  2. Salad greens don't need much in the way of fertilizer, so if you start with healthy, fertile soil, you shouldn't need to supplement at all. 
  3. Pick your greens as needed.  They are tasty as micro greens, or when larger.  And your plants will continue to produce as long as you don't harvest every single lettuce leaf.
  4. Plant succession crops in about six weeks, and continue to plant new seeds regularly after that until it gets too hot (temperatures over 80° every day) for lettuce.  '
  5. We grow arugula year-round, so keep planting new arugula seeds every six to eight weeks all year.  Mizuna is another green that grows year-round here in Zone 9.  And when it gets too hot for lettuce, consider growing Asian Greens bred to thrive in our hot, tropical weather.
Other posts in the Get Growing Series


  1. I've been waiting all month for your next post! I bet I'd like lettuce more if I got to pick my own variety and was rewarded by growing it. Fabulous tips, and it's good to know it can survive in a proper size pot (since I don't have the option of planting). I can't wait to get to work and see what next month brings! :)

  2. Awesome series. I just started subscribing to Neil Sperry's magazine so I can understand what to do on a month-to-month basis. I think it's a bit early for Dallas peeps to plant lettuce, but my big plan is before the end of this month, we'll get the garden ready for February planting. I want to triple the size of the garden, so I'll need to build it out, till, etc. Yippee!

  3. Really terrific posts. I love all the advice. I've had vegetable gardens for years, but I can't say they actually flourish. I'm looking forward to taking advantage of your suggestions.

  4. Gardening is really my weakness. As much as I want to grown my own food, they always die. But still have some herbs alive. But thanks for all the info. I need more practice.

  5. I love the information here and what a coincidence: it is one of our resolutions!

  6. Thanks. I think I was a bit early. i planted lettuce and spinach in late Novemeber. They are growing VERY slowly. Hopefully I'll be able to pick something to eat later. I think I missed the cabbage planting season. I'm just hoping for a little less rain and a little more sun these days.

  7. I can't promise they'll get planted out in January, but I did get all inspired and get some pots ready to be filled. They are great, big, blue glazed urns. And they were FREE!

    I love free. :)

    Am thinking about putting a bay tree in one, and other herbs in the second.

  8. Very detailed and useful tips, as before! I'm lovin this series.


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