Ground to Ground

Autumn Lettuces for Urban Gardeners (from the London Garden)

This year I’ve been growing in a pocket-sized urban space. I have a dozen pots, a small raised bed, and a poly-sheet mini greenhouse. And that’s with a touch of cramming!

Though I doubt I’ll be building a root cellar anytime soon, cultivating my own little plot while the city simmered along in the background has been incredibly satisfying. My goal from the outset was to get as much food as I possibly could from the space and, alongside uniquely tailored soil mixes and closer plantings, one of the ways I’m hoping to achieve this is by growing through the backend of the year as much as possible.

So, with autumn fast approaching, I’ve become slightly obsessed with lettuces. In this short post, I’d like to share a little of the advice I’ll be putting into practice as I try to create a thriving winter salad garden. It would be great to hear your own experiences as this is the first time I’m growing this many lettuces, in pots, through the later months.

Choosing the Right Varieties

Because they’re fast-growing and tolerant of cooler temperatures, certain lettuces can be ideal for sowing in August and September, for growing through autumn and early winter. The sheltered location of many urban gardens, including my own, along with a slightly higher microclimate, is another boon to cold-weather growers.

I’ve chosen fast-growing loose-leaf and butterhead varieties – Marvel of Four Seasons and All of the Year Round – to pick intermittently from October through to December. I’m also planting some very quick-maturing types – Lollo Rosso and Tom Thumb – in the hope that they’ll be substantial enough to pick before the harsh weather gathers force.

My crisphead varieties, Robinsons and Match, which form tighter heads and take longer to mature, will be ready to harvest in early winter, around December and January. Finally, I’ll be starting slow-growing but extremely hardy plants, like the cos lettuce Winter Gem and the butterhead Arctic King, with hopes of an early spring harvest.

My New Vegetable Expert by Dr. Hessayon (a great buy if you’re a hoarder of gardening books like I am) informs me of the following:

Good varieties for late autumn crop (Oct-Dec): Any cold-resistant, fast-growing butterhead or loose-leaf. I’ll be trying Tom Thumb, All the Year Round, Marvel of Four Seasons, Valdor.

Good varieties for early/mid winter crop (Jan-Mar): Crisphead varieties able to withstand cold temperatures, like Robinson or Match, Winter Purslane.

Good varieties for an early spring crop (slow-growing and cold-hardy): Arctic King, Winter Gem, Winter Density.

Tailoring the Soil

Lettuces will thrive in a well-draining, moist (but not sodden), and nutrient-rich medium that’s also high in nitrogen – so coffee grounds are perfect. Personally, I’ll be reusing the soil in my pots by adding some composted manure, a few handfuls of vermiculite and perlite, and a balanced slow-release fertilizer. The manure is high in nitrogen, the vermiculite and perlite assist with drainage and water-retention, and the fertilizer provides nutrients once those in the soil have been exhausted.

Protection

From September onwards, as weather and warmth start to dip, I’ll start providing protection. There’s a myriad of inexpensive options – from homemade cloches (mine are a ramshackle collection of string, bamboo and cheap polythene sheeting) to the low-lying “tunnels” available online. I’ll also be growing indoors, making use of south-facing windows and safe in the knowledge that I don’t need to worry about cold.

Birds, slugs and caterpillars are still very active (my first batch of sowings were gone a day after they appeared) in the late summer and early autumn months and enjoy lush greenage just as much as I do – for which I’ll be supplying copious amounts of fine netting!

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