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Helen Chesnut's Garden Notes: Scarcity of lettuce sparks plans for winter food plot

Putting the lettuce scarcity together with the high cost ($8 for a butterhead from one farmers’ market vendor) leads to an obvious conclusion: Find the time, and the space, to grow lettuces and other greens year-round

It was a wake-up call — disquieting, but useful.

One of the health food stores in my town can usually be counted on to have high quality lettuces, and though the selection has been spotty in recent months because of drought and pest issues in California, between this store and the farmers’ market I’ve been able to supplement the garden’s offerings amply enough to satisfy my appetite for the health-promoting leafy greens that I love.

The health food store receives shipments of greens on one day each week. The last time I went shopping for lettuce it was on the morning of that day, but as I approached the lettuce section I found it empty — except for one small red butterhead. I asked whether the lettuce shipment had come in. The answer was yes, but it was snapped up almost immediately by eager customers. “It was wild in here,” she added.

The experience was food for serious thought, and for planning. Putting the lettuce scarcity together with the high cost ($8 for a butterhead from one farmers’ market vendor) leads to an obvious conclusion: Find the time, and the space, to grow lettuces and other greens year-round.

I must admit, in this past growing season with all its challenges, I missed planting my usual plot of fall and winter lettuces. I have plenty of kale though, and I did make a late summer sowing of corn salad, a favourite green vegetable for its cold hardiness, chewy texture and mild flavour. It makes a delectable salad with sweet onion slices and toasted walnut halves in a lemon juice, olive oil and Dijon mustard dressing.

Growing undercover. I’m currently compiling a list of hardy lettuces to put on my Seeds to Buy list. I’m planning to try early outdoor seedings of some, under cover, and more again, before mid-month in August, for fall and winter harvests.

Cold season plantings like this are most conveniently seeded in spaces that are easily covered over with plastic tunnelling or old floating row fabrics in frosty weather. For this reason, I make my winter lettuce plots 120 cm wide.

Enter the skylights. Before a couple across the street left for the winter in Mexico, they did a massive yard clear-out and offered me some of the “discards” including three clear, rigid domes, each 65 by 125 cm. I think they must have been skylight covers. They are fairly shallow, but if needed I can raise them a little on bricks or boards.

These will be my new covers for cold season lettuces and other greens. As freezing weather approaches, they’ll be easily covered with sheets of old fabric row covers, of which I have an ample stash in the garden shed.

For cold season lettuces, here are some recommended varieties: Winter Density, Cimmaron, Rouge d’hiver, Alkindus (red butterhead), Tom Thumb (an heirloom baby butterhead) and the Little Gem types — miniature romaine lettuces, the best of which I’ve grown so far is Cegolaine, from Johnny’s Selected Seeds — source also for the hardy Salanova butter and oakleaf lettuces.

Meanwhile … To satisfy a yen for fresh, green, crunchy edibles, seed a pot or two with seeds for microgreens. Most popular among these nutritious greens are sunflower, pea, kale, broccoli, amaranth, arugula and kale.

Be sure to use seeds not treated with any pesticide. Some garden centres sell seeds specifically for microgreen production. West Coast Seeds is another source.

Use a shallow container with drainage holes, and a planting mix suited for indoor use. Sow the seeds thickly on the dampened, firmed-down mix and cover with more of the mix. Place the planting in the brightest light available. Keep the soil mix just modestly moist and as green growth emerges and produces leaves, harvest the greens using scissors, making cuts right above the soil line.


Abkhazi sales and festive tea. Akhazi Garden, 1964 Fairfield Rd. in Victoria, is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesday to Sunday. Sales are underway now of holiday and culinary wreaths and table centres. New this year are the Abkhazi Garden Teacup and Wreath Birdfeeders. The teahouse is offering a Festive Christmas High Tea along with their afternoon teas. Make reservations at 778-265-6466. The Gift Shop, located in the teahouse, features quality local artisan art, pottery, fabrics, jewelry, stationery and soaps.