How to grow the best lettuce for summer salads in Canberra region

Owen Pidgeon
Growing your own lettuce is very satisfying.
Growing your own lettuce is very satisfying. Photo: Getty Images

Sometimes it is good to just belong to the long stream of history rather than believing that we are the generation that has discovered everything of value. The ancient pyramids, the Roman viaducts and the gothic cathedrals of western Europe are all testament to engineers of many centuries ago.

And motifs on the walls of many ancient buildings tell us much about the foods that have been grown and eaten. The origins of names also give us valuable clues. Lettuce goes back to the ancient Latin word lactus, meaning "milk" but the ancient varieties were often bitter and sappy.

The Egyptians domesticated lettuce some 5000 years ago as confirmed with depictions of lettuce on many art works of that time. The lettuce grown then was an early type of cos lettuce with its long, overlapping leaves. Men of that time considered lettuce to be a source of virility.

By the time of Pliny in the first century AD, there were a number of quite distinct varieties being grown; Pliny noted nine and the serving of lettuce as a freshening starter for the dinners prepared for the upper classes.

Space savers: Lettuce can be grown in small areas.

Space savers: Lettuce can be grown in small areas. Photo: Getty Images

Lettuces of today are amazingly varied but they still retain the character of ancient lettuces in bolting when under stress from lack of regular watering or exceedingly high temperatures. The plants will begin producing a flower stem to reproduce – and the leaves become more bitter.

To grow your own lettuces you do not need much space but you do need to provide ideal conditions. They love the spring and autumn weather conditions, not too hot and not too cold. Prepare the garden bed well with plenty of compost and add in some pelletised, organic long-life fertiliser. Make sure they will have plenty of sunlight and keep them well watered. Supplement with a foliar seaweed watering every two weeks. Lettuces do best when they can grow rapidly, so adopt succession planting to keep up a good supply for the kitchen.

There are several groups of lettuces which are based on the type of foliage. Loose leaf and cos (romaine) lettuces are the oldest groupings known. Butterhead lettuces have smooth leaves and are semi hearting.

It fascinates me that so many varieties of vegetables have a specific place name. The cos lettuce takes its name from the Greek island of Kos and has been grown for millennia. Its upright leaves form a loose heart. You can pick whole cos lettuces or simply take off some of the outer leaves to use each day. Cos Verdi has dark green leaves which are crisp and have good flavour.

Loose-leaf lettuces produce soft leaves formed around a central rosette. There is a wide selection and they include the royal oakleaf and the frilly leaf green coral and the Italian lollo rossa, with its magenta-edged delicate leaves. Oakleaf lettuces have long lobed and scalloped leaves and the plants grow well throughout the summer months. They   seldom produce any signs of bitterness, even in the hottest weeks of the year.

The Australian yellow is another good heirloom lettuce. It will grow well in both cold and hot conditions, producing large, wavy, tender leaves with a beautiful light yellow colour.

Goldrush is another favourite loose-leaf lettuce of mine. It is an Australian lettuce which can trace its heritage back to the Victorian goldfields in the 1850s. It has masses of small, curled green leaves forming up into a large rosette. Having been bred up in the Central Victorian goldfields it is quite resistant to the effects of hot weather.

Buttercrunch and the green and red mignonettes are excellent butterhead lettuces which can be grown now and into the summer months.

For a traditional hearting lettuce, select  great lakes which can be planted even in mid summer. It produces large, crisp leaves and does not go to seed.

Lettuces are very good for patio living. Plant a selection of seeds each fortnight into a planter box and you will soon have your own home supply of beautiful salad leaves. Remember to water twice a day, and shelter from the very hot afternoon sun.

Lettuce, apple and walnut salad.

Photo: Getty Images

Lettuce, apple and walnut salad

½ cup walnut pieces
150g bacon, diced
1 cos lettuce
1 royal oakleaf lettuce
1 Australian yellow lettuce
2 granny smith apples


40ml olive oil
2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 tbsp dijon mustard
salt and black pepper
½ red onion

Place the walnut pieces in a small bowl and cover with boiling water. Drain after one minute and towel dry. Cook the bacon pieces in a frying pan then remove. Place the walnuts in the pan and cook on a low heat for 4-5 minutes until they brown then remove from the plan and allow to cool. Mix together the diced apple, walnuts and bacon.

For the dressing, mix together the olive oil, apple cider vinegar and mustard and season with salt and pepper. Whisk until the dressing is well blended.

Thinly slice the red onion. Tear the lettuce leaves into medium-sized pieces and arrange the lettuce and onion on a large platter. Add the apple, walnut and bacon mixture. Pour the dressing over the salad and toss well. Serve with garlic croutons.

This week in the garden

* Plant out a selection of other salad greens including rocket, tatsoi and mizuna along with your lettuce plantings for a fine summer diet.

* Plant a selection of carrots in a small garden bed, selecting from little finger, nantes, amsterdam, red kuroda and purple dragon. Mix in radish to help break the soil. Keep moist every day until the seeds germinate.

* Prepare beds for the planting of beans, zucchinis and corn. Mix in plenty of compost and add some pellitised organic fertiliser.

* Plant out potatoes and make sure to cover shoots well. Keep hilling up as the shoots emerge into the sunlight.

* Mulch well all your garden beds with pea straw, sugar cane mulch or lucerne hay to suppress weeds and help retain moisture as the days heat up.

* Apple scab on emerging apples can be controlled by applying the approved contact only, organic spray of lime sulphur at a rate of 1.5 per cent solution at the green tip stage and then 1 per cent every 10 days during spring, or when rain threatens.

* Now is the time to prune off any frosted leaves on your citrus trees. If you find scale on the branches, spray with soapy water or pest oil.

Owen Pidgeon runs the Loriendale Organic Orchard near Hall.