I am! No, you won’t ever find me at the casino. I’m talking about gardening! I think most of us who garden have a touch of the gambler in us. How else can you explain the leap of faith we take every year when we put our seeds or baby transplants out in the wild world dreaming of luscious produce to come? Sometimes things go well and some not so well. That’s just part of life.
Well, today I want to encourage the wildest gamblers out there to take a chance on REALLY early spring lettuce. You know how all the seed packages say to plant your lettuce from mid-March to mid-May? I think they’re missing the boat!
I followed those recommendations for years and what always happened was that as my lettuce finally started to head up it became bitter! The bitterness used to start around mid-June but I’ve had it happen as early as mid-May when temperatures are unusually warm. As a crazed, baby lettuce aficionado this is most frustrating.
Then about 15 years ago I was reading some book (?) where an old woman from the Ozarks said to put your lettuce seed out as soon as the snow melted. This seemed like insanity, but, again, I’ve got a gambling streak. I tried it. Yes, I ran out with a cloth sheet to protect it a few times. But I was eating beautiful baby lettuce salads by the end of March! Needless to say, I’ve been doing this ever since.
When exactly do I take this risk? It varies with the weather and snow. Looking back in my garden diary (yes, you really should keep one) the first planting has been as early as January 5th but probably averages around January 25th. Have I lost my lettuce? Maybe once, but most varieties of lettuce can survive temperatures as low as 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Since lettuce seed is somewhat viable for up to 6 years I usually use old seed from a previous year, so if it is lost I won’t feel quite as bad. Sometimes, when the cravings are severe I’ve been known to start lettuce seeds inside in January and plunk the plants out in early February. Again, it’s a gamble but what an incredible payoff if you succeed! Take a chance!
“Cruciferous” vegetables include cabbage, broccoli, kale, cauliflower, arugula, and the list goes on. These crops love cooler weather and are known as “super” foods, because they are packed with nutrition. I don’t grow large quantities of them. It’s not that we don’t like them, but from past experience it seems like all the “heading” types become ready to harvest almost simultaneously. If you don’t have a big family or like to do serious fermenting, pickling and/or canning, it may cause more stress than pleasure. So, if you do like broccoli, cabbage or cauliflower, but have never grown them, I have a suggestion. On March 24th and 25th, the CGC will be offering transplants of these cool season vegetables at the Claudell garden. Why not ask for a couple of each? That way you can see how it goes without being forced to get 4-6 of them at the nursery or big box store. Also, please remember when picking up these plants that a donation helps us keep all of this going!
cabbage white butterflies (photo Masaki Ikeda)
Another reason for the scarcity of these types of veggies in my garden is the large number of insect pests that LOVE cruciferous plants. I don’t like to use chemicals, especially on the parts of a plant I’m going to eat. This means that for each cruciferous vegetable that I do grow I spend a lot of time monitoring it for pests.
When I walk out for my daily garden inspection I’m always wearing lightweight, flexible gardening gloves and carrying a bucket of soapy water. This allows me to crush or drown every garden pest I encounter. (Though bunnies and turtles get a pass.) For someone who has pet spiders in her home, I can be surprisingly vicious when it comes to biological control on my plants. Another possibility is row covers which will at least slow down the flying pests. Our long-time board member Bill McKelvey says that he grew spectacular cauliflower and broccoli last year using row cover, so I’m going to give it a try. The materials for row covers will be available along with seeds and the transplants at the Claudell Garden on the aforementioned dates.
Using row cover and hoops over a garden bed. (Photo by Mark the Trigeek.)
Unfortunately, I can think of twelve different species that can wreak havoc on various cruciferous vegetables. I don’t have the time, space or inclination to address all of these potential pests and chemical-free ways to grow them, but fortunately I don’t need to. Below you will find several links where someone has already done it for me.
Identification of cruciferous insect pests:
Earth friendly suggestions for control of some of these pests
(Tip: These sites all offer recommendations on other pests, too.)