Urban Gardener: Lettuce Among Us
Saturday, April 12, 2014
There’s no taste like home
Nothing tastes better than home grown. Most of us enjoy access to a wide array of foods gathered from the ends of the world. Transported before maturity, fruits and vegetables are often exposed to gases to prevent further ripening or taken from climates and political arenas where insecticides and noxious labor practices reach dimensions unknown to the ultimate consumer. Detox yourself. Prevent subtle and gradual poisoning. Work in a meaningful way for yourself in your own corner. Join a community garden. Put a pot or two on the steps, be creative and don’t take no for an answer. You can grow your own for rewards far beyond the apparent. Cross over into that green paradise where peace prevails. Let’s start with a spring time favorite, that huge tribe of eatable greens, the lettuces.
Growing your lettuce garden
Lettuces are cool weather crops. They thrive in the spring. When hot weather settles in they send up tall flowering stalks and set seed. You want to plant them thickly and harvest all before they bolt and bloom. Bring youngsters into play and ask your older friends over to supervise from a beach chair. Gardening is an ancient unity. A unity of generations, peoples and culture. Our cities are pluralisms. Observe your neighbors plots for ideas and plants. Don’t restrict yourself to the conventional when there are so many options at your fingertips. This goes for types of plants as well as horticulture as well as neighbors. Spring inspires all of us.
Grow lettuces in well drained fertile soil that has plenty of sunshine. Spring is usually a rainy season. Sprinkle my old favorite, bone meal, into the topsoil and cultivate the seed bed with a hand tool. Kneel on re-cycled leaf bags. Why have worn and dirty knees when these ubiquitous brown paper bags are so common? I fold mine flat and pull from the pile as needed. Once I’ve found a comfortable position on the paper I work bone meal into the topsoil. I often add a generous amount of peat on days when the wind isn’t blowing and especially before rainfall. Do you plant in straight, autocratic lines, regiment after regiment? Use your brown paper bag and pencil out a design. Each gardener has a voice of their own. No two gardens are alike and why should they conform to anything anyhow? Plant and grow for yourself.
Plant lettuces thickly and close together. For me, this is a meditative time. Lettuces, such as Cos or Black Seeded Simpson have tiny, hard to see seeds. Tear off a piece of that ever convenient leaf bag near the plan you’ve drawn. Pour a few seeds a time onto the paper sheet. Seeds are astoundingly expensive. On a piece of paper they can be controlled and measured out onto the seedbed with more accuracy and economy. My day must slow down, breath in and out in a mindful manner and place the seeds just where you’d like them to thrive. There is no rule insisting one plant in lines. I prefer squares. Some cultures plant in circles. Develop a design that suits you and adapts to your space. Don’t hesitate to alternate your plantings. Each type of lettuce has its signature color. Have some fun with the colors, which range from delightful green onward towards red. Close planting helps the gardener enjoy more time eating and contemplating the garden rather than pulling up weeds and errant volunteers.
Our ancestors planted knot gardens, often conceived as a rich person’s hobby. Not at all! Lettuce knows no class distinctions. Circles, squares, checkerboards, all lend themselves to planting vegetables for the springtime harvest. Pull back your permanent mulch or turn it under and buffer the edges of your planting. You’ll want a surface to walk on and protect the community of microorganisms that thrive in your fertile soil. Composting is a year round activity. The permanent mulch need not remain of one material, such as hay or shredded leaves. Rather, whatever is abundant, cheap, and nearby is the primary consideration. The most important aspect of composting organic materials is to actually do it. Composting occurs naturally in soils and will support your lettuces and spring greens.
Don’t be afraid to experiment
Try new plants. Our gene pool shrinks every day. Experiment a little. I discovered beet greens late in my gardening experience. Benefit from my experience. Beets are a wonder crop on their own. Swiss chard is a beet variety grown especially for its leaves, however the common Detroit Red Beet, offers not only sweet and delicious roots but also a plentiful yield of delicious green leaves. If you’re interested in colors, nutrition and technique, the beet family is perfect for you. Swiss chard animates the garden patch with red, yellow, and white stalks. Shop around for the varieties that appeal to your eye as well as your stomach. Each type has the same nutritional values. The colors confuse insects. The differences in texture, color, and form, appeal to something deep within us.
Don’t rest yet. Rather, prepare the seedbed and plant. Ambitious gardeners are inspired to plant again and again. Go for it. Successive plantings will offer top quality greens at different times right until its hot and time to plant those garden plants that prosper during those sultry days when most gardeners are hidden under umbrellas and have a toe in the surf.
Share your mindful planting with others. This is possible when alone of course, look within and imagine. The tiny lettuce seeds are a challenge for me to handle. My thick fingers and hasty nature conspire to hurl the seeds onto the ground. No. Breath deep, scatter the seeds from the paper I’ve suggested, and think it through. Sooner than you think, peace will reduce haste to a pace more in tune with all. Thick fingers will become more nimble. The mind, soul and body conjoin in a profound truth. There is so much more to a garden than chemicals, labor, and pests. Remove yourself from the fray. Be the person you’re meant to be as you practice gardening. Soon enough the salad you make, harvested straight from your plot, will nourish you in ways far beyond the here and now. Let’s plant. It’s spring and the time is right. Fold up your paper bag for future kneeling or bury it under mulch. Paper is a great way to control weeds and takes a summer to succumb to compost.
Related Slideshow: 5 New Food Trends to Try in 2014
Upscale Chefs go "Downscale"
It's an incredible expense of time and money to be among the best chefs around. All of those high-end ingredients cost an arm and leg and the pressure to stay on top is enormous. Most cooks began learning at the feet of their older relatives--moms and dads; grandmas and grandpas. It's this food that calls them back. We see local Chef Jake Rojas rejoice in dropping the tweezers and cooking those SoCal family recipes he grew up eating. Local faves Thames Street Kitchen embarked on a burger concept this year and Providence icon Chez Pascal has its "Wurst Window" serving homemade sausage and comfort food. They're upscale food is wonderful, but this might be their best!
More Gluten Free Options
As we continue to pay the "processed food" price, our nation's food allergies continue to soar. Restaurants have been on the forefront of the movement towards options that take these allergies into account. The gluten allergy has taken the fore as bread and pasta and coated French fries became the first food victims of this allergy. Local establishments such as the Grange have taken gluten free to new heights with terrific vegetarian offerings. On the Hill, Pane e Vino has got an almost 40-item menu of gluten free options. It features everything an Italian meal could need without the worry.
Vietnamese as the "Go-To" Asian Cuisine
Every year it seems as though America "discovers" a new Asian country's food and gets hooked. This year it's the foods of Vietnam. Vietnamese food and ingredients have been a part of local Asian food for years now, but this time it stands on its own. Vietnam's food is highlighted by fresh, simple ingredients treated respectfully and flavorfully. Broths and noodles; lightly cooked meats and fresh vegetables all combine in a balanced meal. Locally we love Pho Horn in Pawtucket and Minh Hai in Cranston. Both are very good local versions of this wonderful cuisine.
Look...here's the problem with us Americans: we only eat the mild stuff. The muscle meat. It's chicken breast and tenderloin and striped bass filets. The problem with this style of eating is what it does to our ecosystem. Local fishermen used to be able to catch a bounty of swordfish BETWEEN the mainland and Block Island, now it's a day's trip to find them. Local chefs and fishermen are working diligently to bring back the mackerel and the sardine and the scup. Fish we have long since forgotten, but helped our forefathers thrive. Check out any of our top-notch "farm to table" spots--Persimmon in Bristol or Farmstead in Providence for example--to try a forgotten yet delicious fish.
As with most things food and beverage, the last 10 years have seen a move towards "smaller is better". Big box stores are gone and chain restaurants are suffering locally. It was only a matter of time until these ideas began making their way into our cocktails and boy are we psyched to see what the future holds. Locally we have Sons of Liberty in South Kingstown, producing small-batch whiskey, single malts and, even vodka. Our state features Coastal Extreme Brewery which makes Thomas Tew rum along with their Newport Storm beer. We've only gotten back into the distilling business here in Rhode Island in 2006 but we think tasty things are coming soon!
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