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The Lettuce Family

There must be a ton of movies, books, and plays that rely on the old mistaken identity gimmick to power the plot. You’ve probably seen some where twins are separated at birth and somehow get snarled up in the same situation without anyone figuring out that there are two of them or other ones where some unsuspecting guy or girl gets mistaken for some super spy, jewel thief, or drug runner and has to spend a chunk of time being chased around in cars, trains, planes, helicopters, or whatever, while trying to find someone who can straighten the matter out before he or she runs out of lucky breaks.

Personally, I don’t know how many folks are involved in elaborate, life-threatening chases in exotic locales each year due to looking a bit like someone else. Judging from what people tell me they’ve been watching on TV, I’m guessing it must be dozens. Fortunately, none of these chases seem to take place in my neighborhood, so I only take notice when a friend or neighbor talks about a show they watched or a book they read.

While I might have missed out on my fair share of mistaken identity chases involving international spy consortiums, I’ve seen lots of cases of mistaken identity in gardens. The most frequent victim is the leafy green vegetables. It can be kind of hard to keep your families straight when you’re dealing with the leafy greens because so many of them look so darn similar.

At first glance, kale, romaine, and spinach seem to be brothers and sisters but, in reality, they’re not even in the same family. Kale is a proud member of the Brassica family and is related to broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage. Spinach, on the other hand, is in the same family with beets and the chards. We’ll cover the Chenopodiaceae, or goosefoot, family in a future column. That just leaves us with romaine. Romaine is a very popular lettuce and a healthy addition to your survival garden. This nutritionally packed leafy green powerhouse is part of the Asteraceae family—one of the largest and most diverse families in the plant world.

The Asteraceae clan includes asters, daisies, sunflowers, marigolds, zinnias, chrysanthemums, and a bunch of other popular flowers and less-popular weeds. Since this is primarily a column about survival gardening, I’m going to concentrate on the edible veggies in that diverse group. Popular Asteraceae veggies include chicory, endive, cardoon, Jerusalem artichoke, globe artichoke, and a wide variety of lettuce. For the sake of simplicity, we’re just going to call this the Lettuce family. Those of you who like to sound like you have more education than sense are free to keep calling it the Asteraceae family just to confuse other gardeners who are just trying to get some work done.

All members of the Lettuce family prefer well-drained soil with a decent amount of moisture. Cardoons and globe artichokes require a fair amount of space, while endive and some varieties of lettuce will grow well in containers. Jerusalem artichokes can make a good windbreak when used as a border plant.

When it comes to planting members of this family, the first one most people try is a form of lettuce. This can often be a disappointing experience. Lettuce is among the most pest- and disease-prone veggies you can grow in your survival garden. Most forms of lettuce require cool temperatures (between 45 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit), so summer crops tend to wilt before they are ready to harvest. In my experience down here in the sunny South, romaine seems to be the sturdiest of the bunch. This is a pretty good deal because romaine is also one of the healthiest lettuces you can grow. It has less sugar and more fiber than its crisper cousins and packs 10 times more beta carotene than iceberg lettuce. Romaine is also an excellent source of vitamin C and delivers a decent amount of folates, calcium, magnesium, and potassium. If you’re growing lettuce for the first time or just want to grow a healthier lettuce with fewer frustrations, I strongly recommend romaine.

Whatever variety of lettuce you choose to grow, you’ve got to be really careful when it comes to fertilizer. Choosing a nitrogen-rich chemical fertilizer will lead to rapid, leafy growth which might look very pretty at first but actually creates an unhealthy plant which attracts diseases and garden pests. A balanced, organic fertilizer like Protogrow will promote more natural growth and lead to a whole lot less problems in the long run. Lettuce attracts enough problems just by its nature; you want to make sure you use the right fertilizer to give it a fighting chance.

One of the most persistent problems you’ll bump into when growing lettuce is slugs. Those ugly looking critters just love to feed on lettuce and, if you get a big enough slug problem, they’ll demolish your entire crop in pretty short order. If you go to the Archives section of Off the Grid News and click on June 2011, you’ll find a whole column I wrote up on Garden Bugs. In there, I give a few tips for controlling slugs without poisoning your entire garden and, potentially, your entire neighborhood. As far as slug control goes, a little bit of manual labor (picking them off and destroying them) is a lot better for your soil and your health than spreading around a whole lot of nasty chemicals that can harm the health of you and your family.

With the right soil, the proper fertilizer, decent conditions, and a bit of work, you can produce some tasty lettuce that will help create some delicious salads. Don’t get too discouraged if your first batch of lettuce doesn’t turn out exactly as planned. Lettuce can be a tender plant but is often a tough customer to grow. Learn from your mistakes and you’ll soon be growing lettuce that will be the envy of your neighborhood.

Well, a few personal matters have me a bit on the run this week, so I’ll wrap things up right about here. Drop by about two weeks from now when I’ll talk about some of the advantages of growing other members of the lettuce family in your survival garden. Until then, this is Jerry, wishing you and yours a healthy, happy time in your survival garden.

Fresh Seeds – Direct

There’s nothing quite as satisfying as enjoying the wholesome goodness of food from your own garden.


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