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Vegetable Garden Care: Leaf Vegetables

Leaf Vegetables

Savoy cabbage; photo Courtesy of Flickr cc/Liz West
Savoy cabbage; photo Courtesy of Flickr cc/Liz West

Lettuces

Lettuce is in the Asteraceae family. If you let it bolt (go to seed), you will be able to quickly identify its family of origin. The flowers have a distinctive, daisy-like appearance and look like small dandelions. The lettuce that we find on our dinner tables is Lactuca sativa.

There are many different kinds of lettuce. They are usually classified in the following main groups:

  • Romaine (Cos) - an upright plant with elongated leaves. It has a crunchy texture and sturdy leaves. Due to its warmer origins in Greece and Italy, romaine lettuce tends to be more heat tolerant than most other types. An interesting heirloom variety to try is the speckled ‘Forellenschluss’.
  • Butterhead - forms a nice compact head with soft, buttery foliage. It is best when harvested young. ‘Boston’ and ‘Buttercrunch’ are two well-known green varieties, but heirloom catalogs boast a host of red-leaved cultivars that are superb such as ‘Pirat’.
  • Crisphead - includes iceberg and summer crisp or Batavian lettuce. Iceberg lettuce, due to its popularity, has turned into a category of its own, but originally it was a cultivar introduced into the market in 1894. ‘New York Head’ is a variety that forms an almost solid head and ‘Red Iceberg’ is an unusual treat.  Summer crisps are similar to icebergs except that the heads are not as tight, the leaves are often wavy and they are easier to grow than iceberg lettuce. A classic is a French heirloom named ‘Queen of the Ices’ or ‘Reine des Glaces’
  • Looseleaf - by far the easiest and most popular lettuces for home gardeners to grow. These lettuces don’t form a head and can be harvested either as a full plant or from individual leaves in a cut-and-come again style of production.

The ever popular mesclun is a mixture of primarily looseleaf lettuce that is sown densely just as you would seed a lawn. They are generally harvested when 4 to 5 inches tall. Cut them down to about an inch above the ground and in 2 to 3 weeks you will be able to come back and cut them again. They can be cut back from two to four times before the plants suffer from exhaustion. Some people plant their mesclun in strips so that they harvest a strip or lane a day. By the time they have reached the seventh or tenth lane, they are almost ready to start harvesting again. 

The best time to harvest lettuce is in the morning when it is still nice and fresh, before it has been beaten down by the heat of the day.

You will know from experience that lettuce doesn’t store particularly well. This is due to its high water content. Most lettuces will begin to wilt after several days in the refrigerator. The best way to store lettuce is to wash it, wrap it in a paper towel and store it in a plastic storage bag.

Cabbages

Cabbage is high in vitamin C and fiber, has anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties and historically was used as a cure for ulcers and cancer.

Planting:

Cabbages are a cool season crop and in the northeast the best time to plant is early spring, but it’s never too early to start planning ahead. Plant seedlings in your garden 3 to 4 weeks before your last frost date and then again in late-July/early-August for a late season crop. If you are starting them from seed, sow them several weeks earlier.

Cabbages like fertile well-drained soil, full sun (although they can handle part shade) and cooler temperatures. Space cabbage seedlings anywhere from 12 to 24 inches apart. The early varieties have smaller heads and can be spaced closely while some of the larger varieties occupy more space. Planting can influence the size of your cabbages; when you space them closer together they will produce smaller heads. If you are troubled with cutworms in your garden, make a cutworm collar for your seedlings out of a glossy magazine: cut a strip from the magazine, and wrap it around the base of the seedling before you plant it in the ground.

Care:

Cabbages are heavy feeders. Nitrogen promotes leaf growth and this leafy vegetable is a nitrogen lover. Nitrogen is the first number on your bag of fertilizer. Use a good organic fertilizer such as Plant-tone® 5-3-3. Fertilizing every couple of weeks with a fish emulsion is also beneficial starting about three weeks after your transplant date. It is equally important to amend your soil on an annual basis with organic material such as compost and cow manure.

Cabbages like consistent moisture so mulching your beds with several inches of straw is always a good idea. If you subject your cabbages to extensive periods of drought they will most likely bolt and flower prematurely.

Cabbage worms will munch holes into your leaves. You can either handpick these hungry little green caterpillars or use Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) products, such as Dipel®. You will know they are on their way when you see the white cabbage butterfly visiting your cabbages to lay their eggs.

Harvesting:

Harvest your cabbage when the head is nice and firm. Sometimes your cabbage heads will split. This is common after a heavy rain when the heads take up too much moisture. If your cabbage head splits, harvest it immediately, cut off the split section and use the rest. Once you have beheaded your cabbage, if you leave a fair amount of the stem intact, small buds in the leaf axils will grow and form ‘cabbage sprouts’. Wait until they get firm and grow between 2 to 4 inches before harvesting.

Cabbages can be stored for up to two weeks in the refrigerator. Late season varieties store well in root cellars.

Varieties:

Beginner gardeners are recommended to try fast maturing varieties such as ‘Dynamo’, ‘Early Jersey Wakefield’ (with its cone-shaped head), ‘Red Acre’, ‘Savoy Ace’ or ‘Stonehead’.

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