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Lettuces in the beginning of October

At the beginning of October, I’d been picking leaves from lettuces sown at the end of June and July already for a couple of weeks, and I was hoping to continue this supply of fresh leaves throughout autumn.

Lettuces at  beg December

Eight weeks later, and even after a couple of frosts, some of the lettuces are still going strong, but now I wonder how they’re going to fare as autumn turns into winter.

I know other growers, such as Charles Dowding, produce magnificent leaves all year round, but these are grown in protected environments such as polytunnels and greenhouses. Living in London, with our brick houses packed tightly together, does provide me with an extra few degrees of warmth, so I’m hoping this will give my outdoor crop a fighting chance. You may ask, why not use your own polytunnel? Well, it’s all about space. Space is minimal, so there’s no room for walk in polytunnels, and I’ve found small cloches really fiddly for both picking and watering. I guess large arched metal hoops covered with fleece would give a little more protection whilst not blocking the rain, but that means you have to undo it all and re-attach it each time you want to pick your lettuces and large swathes of fleece are none-too-decorative in a small front garden either.

So I’ve decided to keep my experiments protection free.

Leetuce at the beginning of December

My ‘Merveille de Quatre Saisons’, at the back of the bed, were sown at the end of June, a bit too early I reckon, and have now all gone to seed. My Cos ‘Freckles’ at the bottom left of the pic were sown at the beginning of September. A bit too late for them to really reach a big enough size for my autumn salads. But my ‘Cocarde’ oak-leaf lettuces are a real triumph. Sown at the end of July, I’ve been picking them from late September and although I’m not eating them every night (and sometimes mixing them with bought lettuces), they give me lots of tasty leaves to eat and look fantastic in my front garden too.

I’m not sure how much longer they’ll continue for (will keep you updated), but this year’s experiments are encouraging (and delicious). I think next year I’ll be planting a whole heap of lettuces at the end of July/beginning of August, as that seems the optimum time to get my autumn leaves off to a flying start.

Mustard leaves at  beg December 2

Meanwhile, mustard leaves (and a few more lettuces) sown mid September, but not planted out until November, have just quietly settled in, without putting on any growth. Again, an earlier sowing in mid August and planting out in September or the beginning of October will hopefully give me spicy leaves aplenty next year.

So although my timings were a little out this summer, I’m really pleased that I still do have some tasty leaves to nibble at (including some self seeded baby nasturtium leaves) and hopefully, with some more careful planning, I’ll do better next year. I’m itching to get sowing seeds already!

p.s. All lettuces above available from Sarah Raven

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After a period in August when I was sadly without home-grown lettuces, I’m delighted to be able to nip out again into the front garden to pick leaves for dinner. My butterhead ‘Merveille de quatre saisons’ (sown at the end of June) and the pointy oakleaf ‘Cocarde’ (sown at the end of July) have been giving bowls of luscious lettuce for a few weeks now, and as the weather starts to cool down, I want to see how these leaves will survive outside without any protection as autumn turns into winter.

I’ve also planted some small Cos ‘Freckles lettuces (sown at the beginning of August) that were so fantastic earlier in the year, to see how their growth progresses and how hardy they are at this time of year. If you haven’t got any lettuces on the go, but still want to have some winter leaves, have a read of Michelle Chapman’s great post ‘A cheat’s guide to salad growing‘.

Waiting in the wings to be planted are some tiny mustard leaf seedlings (planted a few weeks ago). They’re going in the same bed as my Tulips, but I wanted to wait until November to plant these bulbs, so mustard leaf seedlings are getting a bit leggy in their seed trays. The energetic me says plant these on into modules right now and they’ll put on some growth before transplanting in a few weeks, but the lazy me has just left them languishing in their trays. This successional planting can require good timing, luck (that snail and slugs don’t gobble all your seedlings) and above all, effort! I know how much I’ll enjoy having Mizuna, ‘Red giant mustard leaf’ and ‘Green in snow’ to eat in November and December though, so I really ought to get potting on straight away while the sun is shining and the leaves are still on the trees.

P.S. Off to the RHS London Harvest Festival Show this afternoon in Victoria, with the London Veg Orchestra playing from 5-9p.m. Intriguing!

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This year I was so pleased with the fabulous cos ‘Freckles’ lettuce that I grew, that I decided that I’d have a go at collecting seeds from my crop after they’d started to bolt.

I planted a fair few lettuces,

so my seed collecting patch took up a fair amount of space too.

As I started to sift through the seed casings, I realised that my seed collecting was going to take me a fair old while. Not only do you have to divide the outer brown covering from the seeds, but each seed is attached to its own little fluffy parachute, so this has to be carefully detached too (as you don’t want to leave any organic matter other than the seeds in its envelope, as it could rot and the moisture destroy the viability of your seeds). After about half an hour, I started to get itchy, thinking about all the other things I could be getting on with in the garden.

After about an hour, I did have a good pile of seeds, but I still felt a tad resentful about the time I’d spent sorting the seeds to get to my haul. And that got me wondering about how seed companies collect their seeds.

I called Joy at Sea Spring Seeds (a small seed company offering a choice selection of veg seeds) to ask how they collected their seeds. Apart from their Chilli seeds (in which they specialise and offer 40 different varieties), they buy in all the rest from seeds manufacturers. Whilst we agreed that collecting some seeds (I love collecting seeds from beans, sweet peas and hollyhocks) was a worthwhile project, she advised against seed collecting for some plants for a number of reasons. Firstly, letting your plants go to seed can take up valuable growing space and can lead to weed problems as you ignore the space around plants going to seed whilst tending more critical veg production.  This is true. I could have pulled these plants up a couple of months ago and had a whole bed of tasty mustard leaves happily growing by now!

Also, large seed manufacturers have specialist drying equipment for the seeds, so that the seeds are dried correctly before being stored and will maintain their viability. Bad drying and storage of your seeds (always store your seeds in a paper envelope in a cool, dry space), could mean that seeds could have lower germination rates when it comes to sowing them. And then there’s the question of hybrid seeds that will never come true as they have 2 different parents. Blimey, this is where things can start to get complicated (unless you want to be truly experimental). If you’re after a specific hybrid plant and don’t want to waste your growing year on a non-too-certain outcome, then it’s best to stick to bought seeds.

All in all, although there is a thrill about collecting your own seeds (I did really enjoy discovering what a lettuce flower and seed head looked like), certainly for lettuces and other more fiddly seed heads, I think I’d rather pay my £2 and save my precious time and space for growing more veg.

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