Now’s the time for gardeners to plant these cool-season vegetables

January is the time of year when our thoughts turn to New Year’s resolutions and tight-fitting clothes. Luckily, this is also the best time to grow lettuce!

Now that our 100-degree weather is behind us, it’s safe to plant our cool-season vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, kale, beets, and lettuce. Our broccoli and cauliflower have been less than successful because they don’t get enough sun. One year our garden produced a small head of broccoli that was so infested with aphids that the kids called it “Fear Factor” broccoli.

Lettuce, on the other hand, has been a big success. It can be direct seeded in the ground or started in seed trays indoors. The seeds germinate between 70 and 80F, usually within a week of planting. If direct seeding into the ground, I recommend using a pencil or wooden chopstick to poke a hole about an inch deep, then filling the hole with vermiculite and dropping one or two seeds on top. The vermiculite holds moisture to aid germination, and it marks the hole, so you know where to look when the plants emerge. This is especially useful because many weeds look like young lettuce, and this can be a problem when growing mixed seeds (mesclun mix).

Some lettuce varieties, such as Iceberg or Romaine, grow into heads that can be harvested whole when mature. Other varieties can be harvested leaf by leaf and will give you lots of salad greens over most of the winter and early spring. These “cut and come again” varieties are best harvested immediately before using.

Lettuce comes in a variety of colors, making the winter garden a little more decorative. Try growing Red Romaine, Red Sails, Freckles, Bibb, or Oak Leaf. Light green, dark green, red, and variegated leaves provide interesting contrast in the garden and on the plate.

Lettuce requires little feeding but appreciates a mild 2-2-2 fertilizer once or twice during the growing season. It also benefits from companion plants such as marigold, alyssum, nasturtium, and borage.

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When the days get longer and the daytime temperatures warm up, the salad days will come to an end and the lettuce will bolt. The head elongates and a flower stalk soon emerges. Once this happens, the leaves lose their sweetness and become bitter. The sugars that resided in the leaves are migrating to the flower head so the plant can use that energy to produce seeds. Once this process begins, there’s no way to reverse it. Unless you want to save seeds for next year, the whole plant should be pulled out and tossed into the compost pile.

If you want to enjoy lettuce later in the season, look for varieties labeled “slow-bolt.” Sometimes bolting can be delayed by increasing irrigation and using shade cloth, but these steps must be taken before bolting starts.

Looking for more gardening tips? Here’s how to contact the Master Gardener program in your area.

Los Angeles County; 626-586-1988;

Orange County; 949-809-9760;

Riverside County; 951-683-6491 ext. 231;

San Bernardino County; 909-387-2182;

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