A quarter of a century ago, a wise-looking, older fellow leaned over my back fence as I considered what to plant in my newly made raised beds. Without introducing himself, he said, “Don’t bother planting lettuce. It’ll be covered with aphids and not worth the trouble.” Being a little insecure in my gardening skills, I figured he must know—after all, he spoke with such authority. I thanked him for his pearl of garden wisdom, and he walked on.
Hence, for almost two decades I resisted any urge to plant lettuce or any other salad greens and kept myself occupied growing an ever-expanding variety of non-leafy vegetables. Then, a few years ago, a delicious home-grown potluck salad became the focus of a whole group’s conversation. Tender loose-leaf and bronze-edged butterhead lettuces came together in that salad bowl, accented by baby arugula, juicy tomato wedges, the heat of tiny radishes, and the coolness of crisp cucumber. We all admired the just-picked flavors, colors, and textures. I suddenly wanted to grow a salad just like that. But then I remembered that bygone stranger’s long-ago advice.
“Don’t you have problems with aphids on your lettuce?” I asked the salad provider, closely examining each forkful for signs of tiny movement.
“Sometimes,” she replied. “But they’re nothing you can’t manage by putting a row cover over the seedlings. And I do triple rinse what I harvest.”
Reassured, I ate a second helping—and started growing lettuce. The first year, I chose the reliable loose-leaf variety Black-seeded Simpson. I grew the heirloom butterhead Tom Thumb the next year and was delighted by its delicious dainty orbs. Next came romaine; that first unnamed variety since replaced by crunchy, sweet, and bright-green Jericho. The impressively sized Marvel of Four Seasons heirloom butterhead is a favorite recent addition and seems even bigger when planted next to the tiny emerald Tom Thumb. Now, planning ahead, heat-resistant Muir and burgundy-leafed Cherokee Summer crisps are on next Spring’s to-get list.
Lest lettuce growing sound too easy, know that quail and finches consider my field of greens their personal salad bar. I thwart them (along with the occasional lettuce-loving cottontail) with drifts of bird netting. When no seeds sprout, I picture the ant and earwig culprits carrying the tiny seeds aloft to their nests in Lilliputian processions—and set out ant/earwig traps or dust with diatomaceous earth. Finally, I deal with Nevada’s intense and prolonged Summer heat by planting early in Spring and starting seeds inside for late Summer and early Fall.
“And what about the aphids?” you ask. As I was advised, setting out row covers early in the season before the tiny critters can hit critical mass minimizes that problem.
Now having some years of successful greens-growing experience, I have some advice to give. If anyone leans over your back fence or kitchen counter and tells you not to grow greens (or anything else for that matter), politely turn a deaf ear. To those who’ve never grown lettuce, I say “What are you waiting for?” I further challenge those who’ve grown the same lettuce variety or two forever: “Be bold and push the lettuce envelope!” Resolve to grow at least one new variety a year. How can you not grow the irresistibly named Amish Deer’s Tongue, Red Leprechaun, or Speckled Trout Back? Make this Spring’s slogan: “Let us grow lettuce!”
Postscript: About forty years ago my dear (and sadly now departed) Aunt Clara Mae told me “Don’t bother,” when I told her I planned to study creative writing in college. “You can’t make a living at that. Be a psychologist!” So I dutifully declared a psychology major and, after two months of not fitting in, dropped out of school altogether. I floundered for a few years, wandered down some developmental dark alleys and dead ends, but finally got back on a productive track. Decades later, my success with lettuce has helped give me the courage to overcome my aunt’s long-ago advice and start writing. If you’re reading this, you know I’m on the path to my postponed goal. And, to think, it all started with bucking advice and bravely growing lettuce.
Take a look inside yourself. Is there anything in your life you haven’t done because a long time ago someone told you not to?
Let us grow lettuce, indeed…and have the courage to grow ourselves, as well. ❖
This article was published originally in 2020, in GreenPrints Issue #120.