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valley heart lettuce

Valley Heart Lettuce.  NGB Photo 

British author Beatrix Potter once commented, "It is said that the effect of eating too much lettuce is 'soporific.'"

I don't recall if Peter Rabbit took a nap after gorging himself in Mr. McGregor's garden in "The Tale of Peter Rabbit," but growing lettuce is fun, easy --- and won't make you sleepy.

August is the time to sow seeds directly into the garden or pots for a fall leaf lettuce crop. Frilly, leafy lettuces are as decorative growing as they are in a salad bowl or on a BLT. You can also grow greens like Romaine, kale, Swiss chard, curly endive, spinach, chicory, broccoli raab and arugula. Look for varieties that can take the cold.

Leaf lettuce matures much more quickly than other types of lettuce --- 40 to 45 days. Leaf lettuce can be spaced closely together and thrives in containers.

Direct-sow seeds in the garden in blocks or rows. The National Garden Bureau suggests mixing leafy seeds together and scattering them thickly over bare soil, creating an 18-inch-wide swath through a garden bed or as a path edging. "The greens will come up in a colorful carpet," NGB notes. Seedlings should sprout in 7 to 10 days. When the plants are a few inches tall, thin and use the baby greens for a salad.

To sow in containers, use a rich potting soil, adding perlite and vermiculite. Moisten soil before sprinkling seeds; barely cover seeds with moistened soil. Mist regularly to keep soil moist and place pots in morning sun and afternoon shade. Seeds should sprout within a few days.

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Since it's been hotter than H-E-double hockey sticks, find a partially shaded spot in the garden or provide shade with spun polyester cloth to keep plants cooler. NGB recommends lightly misting seedlings and young plants during the day. "Otherwise, they require no different care than spring-sown seeds."

For green leaf lettuce, ISU Extension recommends "Envy," "Grand Rapids," "Oakleaf," "Black-seeded Simpson" and "Tango." "Valley Heart" is a new introduction described as fast-maturing and uniform with a dark green color.

Red leaf cultivars include "Red Sails," "New Red Fire," "Red Salad Bowl," "Ruby" and "Vulcan."

Romaine that can take the cold includes "Rouge d'Hiver" and "Freckles," and the All-America Selections winner "Bright Lights" is a beautiful Swiss chard. As for spinach, choose varieties that are NOT labeled "summer spinach." Kale varieties include curled red-leafed "Redbor Hybrid," bluish crinkle-leafed "Winterbor," and "Red Russian." Some people think frost enhances the flavor of kale.

Harvest only the outer leaves you need for a meal. If the temperatures stay at least 10 to 15 degrees above freezing during the day, plants will continue to produce new leaves at the center of the plant.

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