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Lettuce is easy to grow and provides delicious greens for months. (Susan Mulvihill)
Lettuce is easy to grow and provides delicious greens for months. (Susan Mulvihill)

SUNDAY, APRIL 10, 2011

Time is now to plant lettuce, other root crops

It is finally time to plant cool-season crops. I grow a lot of different types each year and sow the seeds of nearly all of them directly into the garden.

Lettuce is one of the easiest yet most rewarding early crops to grow. What could be more delightful than picking your very own salad greens, night after night, for months on end?

You can plant the seeds in blocks or rows. They only need to be covered with 1/8- to 1/4-inch of soil and should be spaced – or later thinned – 6 to 10 inches apart.

To extend the season, I always pick a few leaves from each plant instead of picking a whole head of lettuce.

Once our hot summer weather arrives, the plants will send up flower stalks and the leaves will become quite bitter. That’s when I pull them up and toss them into the compost pile.

When the weather cools down a bit, I start up a new bed of lettuce to enjoy into the fall.

My favorite varieties include Red Sails, Speckled, Mesclun mix and Marvel of the Four Seasons. A new variety, Garden Babies Butterhead, is supposed to do well in containers.

There are many types of root crops but the easiest to grow are beets, carrots and parsnips. They all have similar cultural requirements: If you give them plenty of compost, loosen the soil well and water them regularly, they will be happy campers.

Avoid adding manure to the soil as that will cause the roots to fork and split.

Cover beet seeds with 1/2 inch of soil and space them 4 inches apart. In addition to producing the familiar roots that are particularly wonderful when oven-roasted, beet greens are a delicious bonus.

Unfortunately, leaf miner insects seem to enjoy the greens just as much as we do, so I grow them under a floating row cover all season long. This is a lightweight fabric that lets in light, moisture and air but acts as a physical barrier to insects. It can be purchased at local garden centers and online.

Tasty varieties of beets include Golden, Bull’s Blood, Chioggia and Jewel-Toned. They all take 55 to 60 days to reach maturity.

When it comes to germination, carrot seeds are the slow-pokes of the garden, needing 14 to 21 days to sprout. To give them a helping hand, I place the seeds on the soil surface and cover them with a layer of peat moss, which is easy for the sprouts to push through.

I plant them in rows and thin the seedlings to 2-inch spacing once they’ve reached 2 to 3 inches in height. Thinning is a bit tedious, but it is crucial for good root development.

Carrots take 65 to 75 days to reach maturity. I like to pick some during the summer and harvest the rest in the fall to store and eat over the winter.

My favorite varieties are Scarlet Nantes, Imperator, Rainbow Blend and Bolero Nantes.

While parsnips may be less familiar than carrots, gardeners will be pleasantly surprised when they taste how sweet the white roots are, especially after being roasted in the oven. They are definitely worthy of a row in the garden.

Parsnip seeds can be planted 1/2-inch deep and should also be thinned to a 2-inch spacing. They require about 100 days to mature and should be harvested in the fall after a couple of frosts.

The varieties of parsnips I’ve tried and enjoyed are Hollow Crown, Harris Model and Turga.

Susan Mulvihill can be reached via e-mail at inthegarden@live.com. Visit her blog at susansinthe garden.blogspot.com for more garden tips and information.


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