Mother Earth News Blogs >

Organic Gardening
Get dirty, have fun and grow more food with great gardening tips from real-life gardeners.

How to Choose and Grow the Best Tasting Strawberries

 

Make the most of your strawberry harvest by choosing a spread of early-season, mid-season, and late-season varieties. Alternatively, grow everbearing (also known as day-neutral or perpetual) strawberries, which produce smaller quantities over a long period. A third type is the alpine strawberry, which produces tiny fruits with a very aromatic strawberry flavor. They can be grown as ground cover in beds between ornamental plants, and allowed to self-seed.

To choose strawberries in our Garden Planner, double-click on the strawberry icon then scroll through the drop-down list to select a variety. Or click the plus button and hover over the information buttons to view their catalog descriptions. You can also add your own variety with custom spacing, as well as planting and harvesting dates.

Choose a sunny spot if possible, but strawberries will also grow in partial shade. Fertile soil will promote better fruiting, so add plenty of rich organic matter, such as well-rotted compost, before planting. Space strawberries 18-24 inches apart in both directions, and plant them with the base of the crown, where the leaves emerge, at soil level.

Strawberries can be grown a little closer together in containers filled with quality potting soil. They will need to be watered more frequently because the soil in containers dries out quickly, but the fruits are less likely to be attacked by slugs.

You can force an extra-early harvest of strawberries by covering early varieties with a cloche or row cover from the end of winter. When the plants begin flowering, remove the covers on warm days to give insect pollinators access. This will give a crop up to three weeks earlier than normal.

Use special strawberry mats or straw to stop mud from splashing the fruits.

Water plants in dry weather to encourage the fruits to swell. Apply a high-potassium organic liquid fertilizer – for instance comfrey tea or a liquid tomato fertilizer – from when the first flowers appear until the plants have finished fruiting.

Keep the plants weeded, and in the first year remove any runners that appear. Once plants are mature, you can use some of these runners to grow new plants.

Beer traps can be used to keep slug numbers down. Net the fruits against birds, making sure to tuck it in at the edges to avoid birds becoming trapped.

Pick your fruits as soon as they’ve turned red, and eat fresh as soon as possible after harvesting for the best flavor and aroma.

Cut the foliage back once your strawberries have finished fruiting. Remove any straw mulch to your compost heap.

Learn more about growing strawberries in this video.

Get More Tips With These Great Gardening Resources

Our popular Vegetable Garden Planner can help you map out your garden design, space crops, know when to plant which crops in your exact location, and much more.

Need crop-specific growing information? Browse our Crops at a Glance Guide for advice on planting and caring for dozens of garden crops.

More Videos

Watch more videos on gardening techniques and other self-reliance, DIY topics on our Wiser Living Videos page.

Planting Tomatoes

Tomatoes used to be easy to grow. Almost anybody with a garden would plant them often letting them sprawl over the ground in many directions. The long, hot, lazy days of summer would kiss the plants and the bees would buzz and fertilize them voraciously.

038

Then Came the Blight

Unfortunately, the rise of big box stores brought bugs and diseases from one part of our country to another. The blight, once in the soil, lives for many years and can contaminate new crops for a long time. Rain splashes the organisms up from the soil infecting first the lower leaves then moving up the plant. They get spots, turn brown, wilt and die. If you are lucky, you may get a crop before this occurs. If the weather is damp early in the season, you may not get a crop at all.

Soil specialists with whom I have consulted and interviewed in my book, “Celeste's Garden Delights,” have reassured me that—if your plants get absolutely everything that they need—they cannot be eaten by bugs (the sugars are too high) and they are not susceptible to disease. In our depleted soils, this is generally not the case. But last year I gave my tomatoes some extra care and the blight didn't make its appearance until nearly the end of the summer. Here's what I did:

I prepared my soil as usual adding organic alfalfa meal, greensand and Azomite powder. Then I forked it loose using a broad fork. Raking it flat, I placed a garden mat on top. This is a durable tarp with holes where the plants will go.

Then, I bought healthy, organic plants. Next, when I went to plant them, I dug a deep hole. Into the hole went one fish head, two crushed eggshells, two aspirin, some micorrhizial fungi and a bit of compost. Then the tomato was placed in the hole. More compost was added around the plant bringing it almost to the same level as the soil. Leaving a slight depression where the tomato was placed allows water to be directed right to the plant. Tamping it down very lightly (roots need oxygen), it was watered well at least a couple of times.

Next, a tomato ladder was placed around the plant and it was securely tied to it using strips of unbleached muslin.

032

028

String is too small and will result in cutting the plants. The lower leaves were removed to keep the lowest leaves on the plant far from the soil. If there are any flowers, it's a good idea to remove them as the point initially is to have the plants develop a strong root system.

It's a good idea to mulch the bed with some straw as this can also keep the soil down during the rains. As the plant grows, it's important to take off most of the suckers. The suckers come out where the leaves come off of the stem (see photos below). You want to let only two or three main stems go up the plant. When watering, it's a good idea to add some compost tea. Put some compost in a bucket along with a few tablespoons of molasses and fill with water. Stir every few days. Add a ½ cup or so to a can of water, funneling through a strainer.

plant with sucker 

As your tomatoes ripen, enjoy in salads and sandwiches. When there are more fruits than you can eat, consider putting them in jars for the winter. I will be doing my Power Point presentation on preserving the harvest at the Vermont Mother Earth News Fair. Come and join me!

036

Celeste Longacre and her husband, Bob, have lived sustainably for more than 35 years. They grow almost all of their vegetables for the year and preserve them by freezing, canning, drying and using a home -built root cellar. Celeste ferments much of the couple’s produce and makes her own sauerkraut, kimchee, and fruit and beet kvass. She is the author of Celeste’s Garden Delights and writes a gardening blog for The Old Farmer’s Almanac. For more information, visit Celeste’s website, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Experimentation with Hugelkulture

 

On the surface it makes sense that hugelkulture would provide many benefits including: increased microbial activity, low maintenance, decreased water requirements, increased planting surface area, nutrient release from rotting wood, turns a waste product into an asset and increased soil temperatures from some composting action.

However, we wanted to test it and be able to see those positive results for ourselves.

What is Hugelkulture?

Essentially it is taking course woody debris and fine organic matter and covering it with soil. This creates a raised bed with a microclimate that can be used to suit different plants in close proximity. In a nutshell, that is hugelkulture (mound - culture). The bed can be relatively small and low to the ground or hugel beds can carry on for thousands of yards and be six feet tall or even higher.  Sepp Holzer is probably best known for utilizing hugelkulture and the technique is well known in the permaculture world but is not exclusive to that movement.

What Are the Benefits of Hugelkulture?

Several points were mentioned above but let me expand on a couple of points.

One of the main benefits promoted with hugel mounds is water retention in the woody material that provides moisture for plants during periods of drought. Depending on climate and the site this could result in no need for irrigation or at the very least reduced irrigation. Have you ever walked through a forest and kicked an old rotted out log? It might not have rained for weeks yet digging into that rotted material and you find moisture. Rotted wood soaks up water like a sponge. That is what will happen inside of a hugel mound.

Another important help is that over time and depending on the condition of the wood when the bed was built will begin to decompose and give off heat. This can aid in germination of seeds and potentially prevent plant loss during a late or early frost. With that decomposition comes nutrient release and a reduction or elimination of other fertilizers. The increased microbial activity hastens the whole process building soil fertility.

How do I Make a Hugelkulture Bed?

It doesn’t have to be complicated. It can be done below ground as in digging a trench filling it with woody debris and covering with soil or lay woody debris down on the ground and cover with soil. It depends on your climate, the site and your preferences. There is no fixed rule on how high, wide or long to build them. Let the creativity flow! Start with the largest logs and lay those down first, layer up with smaller material. If you have excess material like leaves, manure straw or any other excess organic matter you can add that as well. Fill in the gaps and crevices with soil and top the whole thing with 1-2’ of soil. Build to your liking and design.

What Type of Wood Should I Use?

If you are going to plant right away, then you will want to use “seasoned” wood. Wood that is partially decomposed already. If you are prepping the bed to be used several months from now then it would be fine to use newer wood. Preferably use a mix of cured and green wood of different sizes. Stay away from trees containing jugulone like black walnut and hickory. Also, if you have the opportunity steer clear of highly rot resistant wood like cedar and black locust. However, I wouldn’t hesitate to use some of that wood if it was well worn. Basically use what you have on site that is appropriate. Here, in North Idaho, we use predominantly birch, as well as fir and pine. For the fir and pine we only use well-seasoned wood to ensure the tannin levels are already lowered.

Our Experiment

We decided to put a hugelkulture bed in our food forest to test all of the purported benefits of the technique. We decided to keep if very simple by building a smallish bed that is about 10’ long, 7’ wide and around 4’ high. It has settled to about 3.5’ high. It was very important to us to test the moisture retention aspect of this bed. Therefore, we decided that we will not add any water. Whatever we get in rain is what the bed gets. In our climate, we get a decent amount of rain (avg 28” annually) but most people irrigate their gardens around here to keep them growing during the dry months. With that we build our hugel mound with mostly rotting birch of varying sizes. We also added some fir and pine into the mix. We planted a few items: cabbage, onions, beans, lavender, and mustard as kind of control plants to see what happens. We put the lavender on top and the other plants near the base. With the rest of it we seed bombed it. We took whatever seeds we had left over, soaked them and tossed them on the pile. Here is a partial list of the seeds we used: calendula, clover, beans, peas, squash, amaranth, lupine, and peppers to name a few.

As of the time of this writing we have not watered the mound in 17 days. In that time, it has rained here a decent amount so the true test will come later in the season. However, I will say that we have had very good germination from seed and the other plants are doing very well. This might not sound earth shattering to many people but what would happen if we planted all those seeds in trays and put them outside with no regular water? Likely a whole lot of attrition. We have also taken some soil temperature readings. Again, nothing mindblowing but we did get about a 5-degree warmer reading from the hugel mound than the soil next to the hugel mound. The numbers will likely improve more and more over the next couple of seasons.

So far we are enjoying the experiment and it will be fun to see what produces, what bolts and what dies! Time will tell and we will be documenting along the way. Check out our online community for great content! Sean and Monica are available for consulting work regarding property analysis & design, and speaking engagements.

Sean and Monica Mitzel are the proprieters of Huckleberry Mountain Homestead & Breakfast a Bed & Breakfast with a homestead twist. They homestead with their family on 40 acres and are using permaculture techniques and methods for the property. The homestead is a demonstration and education site where they teach workshops and raise dairy goats, sheep, pigs, rabbits, chickens, and ducks. The Mitzels have planted food forests, guilds and enjoy wildcrafting and propagating plants. Sean and Monica can often be found speaking and teaching at different events. To learn more about the Mitzels, visit The Prepared Homestead. Read all of their MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Adaptive Gardening Makes Growing Accessible To All

DSCN0186 - Copy

The benefits of organic gardening are numerous. People who grow their own fruits, vegetables and flowers at home have better access to healthy food, get exercise and fresh air, and often find it lowers their stress level. But gardening can be a difficult task for people with injuries or mobility limitations. Working in a yard or raised garden bed requires moving around, bending over and doing repetitive tasks. This can be a challenge for older folks, people who are disabled or individuals with injuries.

The relatively new field of adaptive gardening is developing techniques so that everyone – regardless of physical ability – can experience the joy of gardening. What is adaptive gardening, and how can you it help you or a loved one grow your own food and flowers?

What is Adaptive Gardening?

Adaptive gardening refers to the practice of “adapting” gardening tasks so they can be performed by anyone, even people with limited mobility. The concept has gained more attention as older gardens have found it harder to keep up with their gardens.

Adaptive gardening combines thoughtfully-designed gardens or raised garden beds with tools that make it easier for people with a limited range of motion to perform necessary tasks. Setting up an adaptive garden for yourself or someone you love doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated. It simply takes some ideas, empathy and creativity.

Who Can benefit from Adaptive Gardening?

Adaptive gardening was designed for people with a range of mobility issues. It’s perfect for people who need wheelchairs or walkers, or people with bad backs, injured knees or arthritis in their hands. That makes adaptive gardening perfect for people with disabilities (including veterans), the elderly and people with chronic injuries.

That being said, almost anyone can benefit from adaptive gardening. The techniques can help people avoid injury. The raised beds, hanging planters and other places where gardeners can grow organic fruits and vegetables can give gardeners with all types of growing spaces innovative ideas for growing food and ornamental plants differently.

Designing an Adaptive Garden

When you set out to create an adaptive gardening space, start by thinking about the needs of the person who will be using it. What is their limitation? Do they need a wider space between raised garden beds to accommodate a wheelchair or walker? Do they have a hard time bending over or kneeling? Has arthritis or another condition made it difficult for them to squeeze pruning shears or wield a shovel?

In a similar vein, it can also be helpful to think through what a person needs to do in a garden. They need to reach into each bed to remove ripe produce or blooming flowers. Unless there’s a watering system, they must carry a hose or watering can to the garden. If the person is already a gardener, talk to them about what tasks they’re struggling to perform.

With a good understanding of those things, start designing the garden to fit the person’s needs. Some research on the type of gardening containers that exist and the tools available for performing basic gardening tasks can be helpful.

Raised Garden beds and Other Containers for Adaptive Gardening

Raised garden beds can be a lifesaver for adaptive gardeners. Several companies make raised beds that are tall or stand on stilts, which eliminates the need to bend over or kneel. If you can’t find a raised bed that’s the perfect height, build one yourself or have a company custom-design one for you.

There are plenty of places to grow edibles and ornaments besides raised beds and the ground.

1. Place pots or other containers on a porch.
2. Set up a vertical garden on a wall (many of these can be made from recycled materials).
3. Hang baskets from hooks in a porch ceiling and use a pulley system to move them to the right height for the gardener. (The added benefit of this is that if you have a small space for gardening, the pulley system gets the plants are out of the way when someone isn’t caring for them.)

Tools for Adaptive Gardening

There are now a wide range of tools designed for adaptive gardeners on the market.

1. Long-handled shovels, rakes and pruners make it easy for anyone to reach into the middle of a garden bed without leaning over. If possible, pick up telescoping tools that can be lengthened and shortened for different tasks.

2. Ergonomically-designed pruners, clippers and other tools can prevent injury and make it easier for people with limited mobility to perform essential tasks.

3. Drip watering systems are great for plants and mean the adaptive gardener doesn’t have to carry around hoses or watering cans.

Looking for more ideas for adaptive gardening? Your local agricultural extension service may be your best resource.

What are your adaptive gardening tricks and techniques? We would enjoy hearing from you.

Paul Wood has more than 30 years experience in the construction industry. He spent over a decade with Habitat for Humanity International, building homes across Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States. For the past 10 years, Paul has been the co-owner of ShelterWorks, maker of Faswall blocks and Durable GreenBed. Connect with Paul on Facebook and Twitter.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

7 Vegetable Garden Shortcuts: Get Growing with Minimum Effort

 

1. Choose Easy Crops

Try growing crops that are naturally low-maintenance, such as onions grown from bulbs (called ‘sets’) or as young plants, summer squash, and zucchini. Bush beans are a lower-maintenance choice than climbing beans because they don’t need support.

Our Garden Planner’s Filter button can be used to show only crops that are particularly easy to grow. Click the Filter button to the left of the plant selection bar, choose the type of plants you’d like to show, and then select the ‘Easy to Grow’ option.

2. Buy Plug Plants 

Plug plants are raised in a ‘plug’ of potting soil until they’re at transplanting stage. Skipping the sowing and early seedling stage saves a lot of time and space if you don’t have much room to start crops under cover or indoors.

Don’t forget to harden plug plants off properly before transplanting by placing them outdoors for increasingly longer times over a period of up to two weeks.

3. Group Vegetables Together

Grow vegetables that enjoy similar growing conditions (for instance, plants from the same crop family) together to make caring for them easier. For example, planting your cabbage family plants in the same bed makes it easier to net them against common pests. Or try grouping lettuces and other leafy salads together to speed up watering and make it easier to set up shade cloth in hot weather if necessary.

4. Make an Instant Bed

Hoe off weeds on the soil surface then add a thick layer of cardboard, laying it so the sheets have a generous overlap. Pile on a 4-inch thick (or thicker) layer of well-rotted garden compost or potting soil . You can sow or plant at once and will have very little weeding to do.

5. Use Growing Bags or Potting Soil Sacks

Usually sold for growing fruiting vegetables like tomatoes or peppers, these sacks of rich potting soil can be used as an instant bed for shallow-rooted crops such as salads, onions, and bush beans and will suppress weeds beneath them. Cut slits into the bottom of the sack for drainage then lay it on the ground and cut away the plastic from the top of the sack. At the end of the season re-use the soil in the bottom of containers or cut away the plastic to make it into a permanent bed.

6. Make Containers Lower-Maintenance

Mulch containers with gravel or shredded bark to reduce evaporation and save time spent watering.

Use large containers of soil-based potting soil as they will be slower to dry out than smaller ones, so will need watering and feeding less often.

Group your containers together for easy watering, and to help protect them from wind.

When you’re going on vacation, sink containers into the ground then water the container and surrounding soil thoroughly. They’ll cope much better while you’re away than crops in above-ground containers.

7. Low-Maintenance Paths

A thick mat of straw, bark chippings, or other biodegradable matter makes an instant path, or use strong planks of wood for a firmer surface.

If you have grass paths, edge the beds with wood to make it easier to mow and trim up to the edge and to stop the grass from growing into the beds.

Learn more about growing with minimal effort in this video.

More Gardening Resources

Our popular Vegetable Garden Planner can help you map out your garden design, space crops, know when to plant which crops in your exact location, and much more.

Need crop-specific growing information? Browse our Crops at a Glance Guide for advice on planting and caring for dozens of garden crops.

More Videos

Watch more videos on gardening techniques and other self-reliance, DIY topics on our Wiser Living Videos page.

The Cotton Project

Cindys nametagHomespuncottonofcolorBLOG

The fact that you can grow something and turn it into fabric for clothes with simple hand tools is fascinating to me. That’s what led me to grow cotton in my garden and learn to spin. Growing colored cotton, specifically green and brown, is much more interesting than growing white, so that is what I did.

At the time, I didn’t realize the distance that was needed between varieties so they wouldn’t cross and I had them separated by only 100 feet. The isolation distance recommended for home use is 650’ and for commercial production a half mile or more. I was only growing it for fun and concentrating on learning to spin, so at first I didn’t notice just how much mixing was going on in the garden when I planted back the seeds I saved from one harvest to the next. Once I took notice, I realized that my original colors that you see in the name tag I wove from my early cotton would be lost if I didn’t pay attention.

It appeared that what had crossed, either in the green bed or the brown bed, produced a light brown fiber. The colors pop once the fiber is boiled in soapy water during a process called scouring. I spin my cotton and wind it into skeins, then scour. Following Stephanie Gaustad’s advice in The Practical Spinner’s Guide: Cotton, Flax, Hemp, I fill a 2 gallon pot with water and add 2 tablespoons of washing soda and a bit of soap. Gaustad recommends 1 tablespoon of dry laundry detergent, but I usually substitute a squirt of dish soap. My skeins go in that for a 45 minute simmer, then I give them a good rinse, roll them in a towel to take out excess water, and hang them to dry. Some shrinkage occurs in the process, which I like. Better to get that out of the way before I weave with it.

Color of Seed Indicates Variety

I decided to see if I could separate out the colors. The light brown that I found in both beds was an indication of an F1 generation of plants. F1 characteristics can be predictable and it is F1s that you see offered as hybrids in seed catalogs, the first generation following a crossing of two pure varieties of the same crop. You have probably heard not to save seeds from hybrid, or F1 generation, plants. The reason is that they can be unpredictable. There is much diversity of genes wrapped up in those seeds and it will express itself for years to come. In 2016 I carefully sorted out the colors and the seeds and asked five family and friends to each grow out a subset of seeds. You can find the details of that at The Cotton Project.

Besides looking at the colors of the fiber, I was also noticing the amount of lint on the seeds. The dark brown cotton had seeds with no lint, or naked. All the rest had fuzzy seeds. There is also a slight difference in the feel of the fiber. A silky feel originates from the green cotton and is passed on to the light brown fiber. This project has been interesting and has brought more questions to be worked on in the coming season. What surprised me the most was that it was so hard to find green. The seeds that I had harvested from the green plants did not necessarily grow out to green. However, I know it is in there and we will continue with the project this year.

You could do something like this with any hybrid crop. Characteristics come to light in the F2 generation and beyond that you can choose to work with to produce a variety specific to you and your garden. Essentially, you would become a seed breeder. I once grew out seeds saved from a hybrid zucchini and got all sorts of shapes of squash. That is when it realized that zucchinis were so closely related to pumpkins.

When and if I settle on a green and brown, it will probably not be the same shade of green and brown I started with. Besides producing colors not found elsewhere, spinning your own fiber allows you to blend colors, producing a product specific to you. There is a lot of fun to be had in this world. Whether it is working with cotton or something else, I hope you join the adventure.

Cindy Conner is the author of Seed Libraries and Grow a Sustainable Diet and has produced DVDs about garden planning and managing cover crops with hand tools. Learn more about what she is up to at Homeplace Earth.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Growing Lettuce Year Round: Succession Planting for a Continuous Supply

 

A bed of lettuce in May. Photo by Wren Vile

When I moved to central Virginia 25 years ago, it was accepted as fact that we couldn't grow lettuce in the summer. And we didn't yet have a hoophouse yet, so we didn't have lettuce in winter either. I set out to extend the lettuce seasons of fall and spring, and got them to meet, so that we can have a continuous supply of salads all year. I wrote about winter lettuce here, and I just completed a year of postings about suitable lettuce varieties for each month on my own blog Sustainable Market Farming. Here I'm going to provide a general strategy for scheduling lettuce plantings so that you have neither gluts nor gaps in your supply. This kind of scheduling is called "succession planting" and is also used for short-lived warm weather crops (think zucchini). I have a slide show on Succession Planting, which I present at some of the Mother Earth News Fairs.

Sow Several Lettuce Varieties

One simple way to extend the harvest period of each lettuce sowing is to sow several different varieties on the same day. Choose varieties with different numbers of days to maturity, including at least one fast one and one slow one. There can be quite large differences in days to maturity, for instance Buttercrunch is a small, fast, reliable green 48-day butterhead (bibb) and romaine lettuces generally take 55-58 days. Looseleaf lettuces like the 50-day Salad Bowls are a very useful lettuce type because you can harvest individual leaves off the whole row while you wait for the heads to reach full size. (Yes, you will be setting them back a bit, but there will be plenty of lettuce later and this method will give you lettuce sooner.)

Buttercrunch Bibb Lettuce. Photo by Kathleen Slattery

Choose Lettuce Varieties to Suit the Season

My second tip is to choose varieties which work well for the time of year. This will help ensure that the lettuce you plant reaches harvest in a good state. Here the Lettuce Year has 5 seasons: Early Spring: January-March; Spring: April 1-May 15; Summer: May 15-Aug 15; fall: August 15-September 7 and winter: September 8 until the end of September, when we start our break from sowing lettuce (but not our break from harvesting!) Each season has varieties which work well and others which do not. Our springs are short and quickly heat up, so we only have a small window for sowing lettuces which bolt as soon as the weather warms at all. That window closes March 31 for us, and examples include Bronze Arrow, Freckles, Merlot, Midnite Ruffles, Oscarde and Panisse. Johnny's Selected Seeds has a head lettuce planting program with three seasons (early season, mid-season and late season) where they recommend some suitable varieties. Varieties for early spring are fast-growing. Mid-season varieties have some heat-tolerance (resistance to bolting). Their late-season varieties are chosen for disease resistance and cold tolerance.

Sow Extra Lettuce Seeds

We sow four lettuce varieties each time and I like to choose varieties that differ in color and shape. There is no reason to get bored with lettuce! We are planting 120 lettuces each week, to feed a hundred people, and it is easy for us to make four flats of 40 transplants each, allowing us extras in case something goes wrong, or it turns out that we are planting one of the longer beds that week. If we see that the following sowing has come up poorly, we might transplant more than 120, or save the leftover lettuce plants to fill out the next planting.

Lettuce Scheduling Made Easy

For a continuous supply, lettuce needs to be planted many times during the season. Typically, crops mature faster in warmer weather. So, to get harvests starting an equal number of days apart, you need to shorten the interval between one sowing date and the next as the season progresses. An easy "No Paperwork" way of finding out what the planting intervals need to be is available to those who direct sow their lettuce, or sow it outdoors in a nursery seedbed.  Sow some lettuce and the day it emerges, sow some more. This method works because as the weather warms up in spring, the lettuce seed germinates faster, giving you the signal that it is time to make another sowing. Your sowing intervals get shorter, without you having to do any calculations. You do need to pay close attention, and you do need to be experienced enough to be sure that your seed will germinate. Otherwise you would just wait and wait. . . 

Here is a table of soil temperature, days to emergence, and the percentage of normal seedlings you can expect. This is based on figures from Nancy Bubel in her Seed Starter's Handbook

Lettuce seed days to emergence and percentage of normal seedlings at various soil temperatures

Soil temperature

32F

0C

41F

5C

50F

10C

59F

15C

68F

20C

77F

25C

86F

30C

95F

35C

104F

40C

Days to emergence

49

15

7

4

3

2

3

0

0

% normal seedlings

98

98

98

99

99

99

12

0

0

 

As you can quickly realize, it's pointless to try to germinate lettuce in soils as warm as 86F (30C).  In hot weather, sow in the late afternoon or at nightfall. The cooler night-time temperatures give the seed better emergence than morning sowings.

Lettuce scheduling Made Memorable

Maybe you don't want to be on tenterhooks watching for seeds to come up? An easy memorable sequence to follow is

sow twice in January
twice in February
every 10 days in March
every 9 days in April
every 8 days in May
every 6-7 days in June and July
• every 5 days in early August
moving to every 3 days in late August
every other day until Sept 21.

After that we make a couple of "insurance sowings" before the end of September.

New Red Fire lettuce. Photo by Bridget Aleshire

Lettuce Scheduling Made Perfect

For a customized close-fit plan for your farm, save three pieces of information for each sowing you make this year: the sowing date, the date of first harvest and the date of last worthwhile harvest. In the winter, use this information to make a graph to fine-tune your future sowing dates. In my Succession Crops slideshow I explain and show my 5-step method.

• Plot a graph for each crop, with sowing date along the horizontal (x) axis and harvest start date along the vertical (y) axis. Mark in all your data. Join with a curve.
Mark the first possible sowing date and the harvest start date for that.
Decide the last worthwhile harvest start date, mark that.
Then divide the harvest period into a whole number of segments, according to how often you want a new patch.
Figure the sowing dates needed to match your chosen harvest start dates

Don't Stop too Soon!

At some point in the fall, you will reach a date when it's time to stop sowing. Knowing this might save you from giving up too soon. Any lettuce sown after your stop date would make little if any growth for the winter. Lettuce can make growth whenever the temperature stays above 41F (5C), although spinach and kale grow faster at those low temperatures. Figure out when it will get too cold for lettuce growth where you are, taking any protected growing space into account.

Pam Dawling works in the vegetable gardens at Twin Oaks Community in central Virginia. She often presents workshops at MEN Fairs. Pam also writes for Growing for Market magazine. Her book, Sustainable Market Farming: Intensive Vegetable Production on a Few Acres, is available at www.sustainablemarketfarming.com, Pam's blog is on her website and also on facebook.com/SustainableMarketFarming.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.