Who remembers Mr McGregor and his frequent battles with Peter and his siblings? What was it that so attracted them to the fresh lettuce that Mr McGregor went to such lengths to protect?
This is how the RHS at Rosemoor in North Devon honour Mr McGregor and those battles. Whether that's how Beatrix Potter imagined it we'll never know!
There are three varieties of lettuce:
Cabbage varieties - split into butterheads and crispheads. The former are the most popular as they are quick to mature and the leaves are soft and smooth. Most of them are summer varieties but some can be grown under glass to give us lettuce in the spring. The latter produce slightly larger hearts of crisp, curled leaves.
Cos varieties - these are easy to spot from their upright habit. The leaves are crisp with a great taste.
Loose-leaf varieties - these don't have a heart and produce leaves that are curled and picked like spinach. You cut what you can eat from the plant and leave it to continue to grow and provide you with more leaves for a salad on another day.
Here are the varieties we've planted up this year. We have a lot of lettuce to get through - 300 Amaze, and 1700 (yes, 1700) each of Tom Thumb and Little Gem. That's an awful lot of lettuce seeds to sow, water, talk to, prick out and grown on. And all the seeds have a best before date of September this year.
I think that would be far too many for Peter and his siblings to get through, but we'd better get sowing...........
The thing is sowing lettuce seeds is easy. All you need to do is get your seeds, some compost and something to grow them in. They can be sown indoors from March - May and then outdoors when the weather warms up from May - August.
Fill your container up with compost, moisten it, draw a line through the surface about 1/2 inch deep and thinly sow your seeds. Cover them up, keep them moist and leave them on a warm sunny windowsill.
Prick them out once they've germinated and grown to a size that you can safely and easily handle and either pot them on or, if the weather is warm enough, plant them out in their final growing position.
Then as they grow some more you'll need to thin them out as they'll need more space - 10 inches apart is recommended but with so many seeds to sow you might be tempted to cram them in! That should be ok but will mean that the ultimate lettuce you harvest might be slightly smaller than it would otherwise have been.
However you grow them - starting them off indoors and planting them out, or sowing them directly outdoors - you'll need to keep the soil moist, give them space to grow and keep predators away - be that Peter-types or the dreaded slugs and snails. How you do that is entirely up to you........
Here's some of our own Amaze and Tom Thumb that we sowed a few weeks back. The weather was warm and we thought we'd take a flyer and sow them directly outside.
They seem to have weathered the rain this week and haven't been attacked yet but yes, they do need thinning out!
A job for this weekend and although the thinnings are slightly too small we will use them as very baby leaves and eat them!
And yes. Grown in a galvanised wheel barrow - a nod to Mr McGregor and to maximise space at the allotment!
The thing is, and as we've touched upon earlier, there are only so many lettuce that anyone can eat at any one time. And as we all know eating too much in one sitting was what made Peter feel so sleepy...........
But why was that? Well several species of lettuce secrete a milky fluid called Lactucarium from the base of the stems and is often referred as lettuce opium due to its sedative and analgesic properties. Lettuce really does have a soporific quality and we're looking forward to picking ours, in the sun at the allotment in a few weeks time, and dozing off. Unless Peter beats us to it!
Anyway what can we do about having a glut of lettuce - or any other produce? Well we practice successional sowing. Nothing complicated about that. It just means we sow some seeds every week or so - whether that's direct into the ground (as we have done with our Shiraz Mangetout, Aquadulce Claudia Broad Beans and Purple Haze Carrots) or into our windowsill greenhouse (for our lettuce seeds).
Here's a photo of our latest successional lettuce sowings waiting to germinate....... We've got some more Amaze and Tom Thumb in those plug trays along with some Little Gem.
Then, once they've germinated and are ready to go into their final growing position we're planting them up like this - something we saw at a National Trust garden near Bradford on Avon last year.
We're tight on space at the allotment that's ready for planting up so we're going to try a few of these vertical planters this year around our fruit cage - some will have lettuce in them, others will have some of our trailing squash. It'll be an interesting experiment!
And there you have it. You can buy a 200g of Mixed Salad Leaves from your local supermarket for £1.25 - or £2.30 for 100g from a well known online supplier! They'll come in a plastic bag, might well have been grown in Spain or Italy and picked some time ago and if you're really unlucky they might have been washed in water with a dash of chlorine!
Or you can buy some seeds, follow what we've said here and have a summer long supply of fresh leaves that you've grown, watered, talked to and tenderly tended for a fraction of what the equivalent amount would have cost you if you'd bought them.......
Give it a go and let us know how you get on.