Thursday, December 30, 2010

Lettuce keep going

Fresh lettuce right from our garden continues to be on our evening menus.
And it is almost January. In Kansas.
The lettuce I picked a couple of days ago is almost gone. So my list of chores for the day includes “pick lettuce.” That might be a bit tricky, as the wind is howling. Gusts of up to 30 miles per hour were noted in the forecast for today.
Wind is not an ally when you must pull up large sheets of plastic to get at the lettuce.
Although the howl of the wind makes it sound bitterly cold outside, the actual temperature is over 60 degrees F. and climbing. I haven’t had a fire in our stove since late yesterday morning.
This will not last, though. Snow tomorrow and the forecast low for tomorrow night is in the low teens, with a high of 29 degrees on New Year’s Day.
Welcome to Kansas and its fickle weather.
Not that I am complaining. Last winter I got all of my exercise with almost daily snow shoveling.
At this moment I am waiting for boxes of garden seed to arrive, as I have already hit the mail order catalogs.
Lettuce -- naturally -- was a focus of my seed purchasing for the next growing season.
After reading through descriptions of dozens of varieties of lettuce, I finally settled on 14 varieties for this year. They won’t all be planted at the same time, as some were chosen for their heat tolerance and others were chosen for their ability to withstand cold. Some were put on my list simply because they look really cool or have a name that appealed to me.
Often thought of as simply a nutrition-poor base for salads, lettuce is actually fairly nutritious. It can’t compare to the nutrition in such things as kale or chard, but it is certainly not nutrition-free. The deeper the color of the lettuce, the more nutrition it has, since many of our nutrients are related to pigments found in foods. Romaine and loose leaf lettuce varieties tend to have the highest levels of nutrients, partly because sunlight can penetrate to the core leaves, giving them richer color.
The crisp head varieties, which include the ubiquitous iceberg lettuce, have significantly less of some nutrients than the other types.
Lettuce even has medicinal qualities.
That milky sap that oozes from the lower end of the middle ribs when you cut the lettuce, and is most abundant in mature lettuce plants, is where the medicinal nature of lettuce lies. It is most often used to induce sleep. The genus name of lettuce, Lactuca, and the name “lettuce” itself both are references to that milky sap.
Apparently, humans have cultivated lettuce for as long as 5,000 years. The ancient Egyptians cultivated a lettuce species that produces large seeds from which an oil is extracted. Modern Egyptians still use this plant. Ancient Romans were the ones who spearheaded the selection of lettuce varieties, the result of which is the mind-boggling number of varieties now available to us.
I am looking forward to testing and tasting these different lettuces, as well as trying new strategies in lettuce growing and being more diligent in already familiar strategies, such as thinning.
To show you that I am not absolutely 100 percent obsessed with lettuce, my seed purchases this winter also included some merely interesting vegetables, such as the Spring Blush Snap Pea (a PINK snap pea) and Salt and Pepper Cucumber (a pale colored cucumber that just looked beautiful in the catalog photo).
I will also do some experimentation this year with onions, searching for a variety that grows well here and can be stored for months without rotting.
Nobility, Gunnison, Copra and Prince are the yellow onion varieties I have selected for their reported long storage capability. Starting onion seed indoors in late January and transplanting in mid-March was successful this past year, so that is how I will test these varieties. Unfortunately, it will be a full year before the true success (long storage) can be assessed.
Stay tuned…

Monday, December 20, 2010

Lettuce rejoice

The weather since my last post has been relatively warm, so I haven't been as obsessed with the lettuce survival. We are still eating the lettuce I picked more than a week ago, before the single digit lows, so I have had not need to get into the lettuce patch. However, a couple of days after the super low nights I opened the tunnels to take the blankets off of the lettuce to give it some sun and it all looked good. Hallelujah!
In a couple of days I will need to pick lettuce again, then we'll see what it's really like.
But tonight I am celebrating the Solstice, the return of the Sun.
Lettuce rejoice!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Lettuce watch again

The low hit 7 last night, but it never went below 29 in the lettuce patch. No buckets of hot water last night, but I put sheets over the tunnels to hold in the little bit of heat the lights produce. Just a few more days and we can see how it all works.
Yes, I know. I appear to be obsessed with lettuce. There are worse things.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Lettuce watch, two

Snow thyme!
The wind is still blowing strong, but not roaring as loudly as it did last night. I don't hear the plastic rattling on the lettuce tunnels. The low last night hit 10 degrees Fahrenheit, but beneath the blanket inside the plastic tunnel it got no lower than 27 degrees. Lettuce can handle that.

Right now, about 1 p.m., it is sunny and 29 degrees. Inside the tunnel it is a toasty 50 degrees. The light snow that fell last night is still on the ground, although it is melting a bit where the sun hits the concrete on the porch.

They have revised the forecast downward, with a low of 0 degrees F tonight and 9 tomorrow night. Perhaps with a lighter wind I will be able to put the sheets over the tunnels and hold in the heat better.

Last night, at about 9, we noticed that one side of one of the lettuce tunnels had pulled loose. So we pulled on boots and coats again and put it back in place. It was the only tunnel that I hadn't put clips on, so I clipped it.

Yesterday I started looking through catalogs for varieties of lettuce that will not become bitter in summer heat and/or will stand up to cold. A bibb/romaine type called "Winter Density" looks promising as a winter crop. A heading type called "Summertime" seems like a good hot weather choice. Many other varieties will offer their own summer/winter/spring advantages.

The number of varieties of lettuce is astounding. Only the number of tomato and squash varieties rival it. Many are quite lovely to look  at. I will no doubt buy a dozen or more varieties of lettuce seed for the coming year. This isn't just about salad anymore, this is a scientific/gardening endeavor and adventure.

So this is the year I will become obsessed with lettuce. I have done it before with various types of veggies -- squash, tomatoes, beans -- and so on. I learn a lot, but the most important thing is that I find it exciting. We all seek our thrills in different ways. This is mine.
Winter gardening, my idea of adventure!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Lettuce watch

The wind is howling and the temperature outdoors has been a steady 18 degrees Fahrenheit for several hours. The day started with a temperature just under 40 degrees F, a stiff wind and cloudy skies that were intermittently clear as the temperature dropped all day.

Although the outside temperature is in the teens, our lettuce is sitting at a relatively cozy 30 degrees inside the plastic tunnels.

Yesterday afternoon, when the temperature hit nearly 60 under mostly sunny skies, I opened all of the plastic tunnels housing our winter lettuce. They needed ventilation because the temperature inside had hit 91. I harvested twice as much lettuce as usual, so that we would have plenty, in case there were no survivors after this weekend. Tonight's low is suppose to fall to 10. Tomorrow night they say it will drop to 2. All with a brisk breeze with gusts possibly to 50 mph. Not only will the hardiness of the lettuce be tested, but so will the durability of our plastic tunnels. I hear them rattling.
Lettuce tucked all snug in its bed.

While harvesting, I did find a number of leaves that had been hard hit by the cold, The romaine and salad bowl varieties fared the best. Even the Sergeant oakleaf, which was in the bed that got exposed to the teens on the night before Thanksgiving, had quite a few good leaves. Buttercrunch is a tender, tasty loose heading variety that I really like, but it is too tender for the winter garden. A lot of it had turned to mush and slime, although many of the little hearts were good. I like the tender, pale hearts.

After harvesting the lettuce, spinach and arugula and pulling all of the radishes, I put blankets over the lettuce and pulled the plastic back over the hoops. The FedEx guy just happened to arrive that day with my recently ordered shade cloth (for the summer) and, most important, clips that I was able to use to attach the plastic to the hoops. All the better to survive the wind.

About an hour ago I put buckets of hot water inside each tunnel. When I picked up the rocks anchoring the edges of the plastic, my slightly damp gloves immediately froze to them. That's how it is when it is just 18 degrees outside. While the howling wind didn't give me much trouble with the plastic, it kept me from putting sheets over the tunnels for extra heat-holding ability.

Two buckets of steaming hot water in each tunnel hardly seem adequate to fill the area with heat, but I hope it works. Tomorrow night, I will repeat. However, it will be Wednesday or Thursday before it is warm enough to open the tunnels enough to see whether we will have to go back to buying lettuce.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Lettuce continue

It amazes me how hardy plants are. Even after experiencing several nights in the teens, some unprotected plants in the garden are green, not growing, but green.
And the lettuce experiment continues.
On Monday I picked a large basketful of lettuce. Even after some very cold nights, lots of lettuce is still good. Some of the leaves are obviously ruined. Some just have ruined bits on them. Others are as lovely and crisp as if it were a balmy spring.
Underneath the plastic, which is draped over 10-foot PVC bent to make a tunnel about 4 feet wide and 2 1/2 to 3 feet tall, large Christmas lights add a few degrees of warmth during cold nights. Buckets painted black and filled with water absorb heat from sunlight during the day and radiate it at night. This past Sunday night, when the low hit 15, I filled the buckets with hot water. The next two nights, when the lows were predicted in the low teens, I put sheets over the plastic to keep the heat from dissipating as rapidly or as much.
The sheets seem critical to keeping the temperature up.
Last week I put a remote temperature sensor inside one of the low tunnels. A receiver indoors tells me what the temperature in the tunnel is, and records the high and low every 24 hours. On the nights without the sheets, the temperature inside seemed not much different than the outdoor temperature. However, the sensor for our regular outdoor reading is about 4 feet above the ground on a tree. The slope of the land puts the lettuce beds possibly 10 feet lower than that sensor, enough of a drop that the temperature there could be a few degrees colder, since cold air flows downward.
Even with the lights on, the temperature was not much higher inside the tunnels. That was on nights when the low was in the 20s, without the extra protection of the sheets. With the sheets over the tunnels, the temperature was quite a bit different. The low inside the tunnel last night was 24 degrees, while the exterior low was 15.
Today, when the high hit 46 and the sun shone through light, wispy clouds, the temperature inside the tunnel went up to 90. But the temperature drops rapidly when the sun falls low, and trees to the west cast shadow over the tunnels.
The lettuce is heavily mulched with hay, so the roots should be relatively warm, enough to keep the plants alive. As warm as it gets inside the tunnels during the day, the lettuce might even do a little growing.
The forecast lows for this weekend are something like 13 for Saturday night and a blistering 6 (that's degrees Fahrenheit) on Sunday night, with the highs those two days in the low 20s. Ouch.
However, Thursday and Friday's highs are about 50 or a little higher. So on Friday I will pick more lettuce, do a little cleanup, water, get more buckets situated inside and put blankets over the lettuce beneath the tunnel. Then before I go to bed on Saturday and Sunday nights, I will fill the buckets with hot water and put sheets over top of the tunnels again.
My friend who had lettuce growing all last winter has a low tunnel that is taller and wider than mine. I wonder if the larger area held just a bit more heat. I don't know. She told me that on really cold nights she placed candles inside the tunnel. But she has some ground space between her lettuce and the side of the tunnel. I have lots of dry, flammable hay. No candles for me.
We'll see whether this weekend puts an end to the lettuce experiment, or whether it keeps on going.

Monday, December 6, 2010


I took these photos during a controlled prairie burn in 2004.
It all started innocently enough.
The sun shone. The temperature was relatively warm, for December.
I was just doing routine chores.
That included dumping the ash bucket. The last time I cleaned the stove was 24 hours ago. All of the coals should be cold.
As usual, I walked a few steps into the unmowed grass at the edge of our woods to dump the ash.
Fortunately, I decided to work outside for a bit, to finish putting the asparagus to bed for the winter. Otherwise I wouldn't have seen the flames as soon as they began dancing and leaping in the brisk wind. Who knows how long it would have taken me to notice the flames if I had gone back indoors.
Redcedar trees burn as if they have been doused with
After nearly 20 years as a reporter for a small town newspaper I had heard enough fire safety tips and talked to enough fire chiefs to know that the first thing I was suppose to do is call 911. The fire chiefs all told me that they would rather respond and find out you put out the fire yourself than to have the fire get way out of control before they got there. And upon seeing the flames, I contemplated running inside and calling 911 before trying to snuff the flames that were itching to burn down my woods.
However, if I took time for that, there would be no chance of me snuffing out the flames before they reached a pile of finished compost, several cedar trees (which catch fire explosively) and a pile of wood for burning in the stove next winter. If the fire moved into the woods on the steep hillside, fighting it would be incredibly difficult for our volunteer fire department. So I decided to take care of it myself.
In a situation like this (did I mention the brisk wind and dry conditions?) split second timing is critical. So that thought process made a lot of intuitive leaps, for expediancy's sake, and actually went more like this...

A 2004 controlled burn at Snyder Prairie near Mayetta. It is
one of few remaining virgin tall grass prairies and is
managed by the Grassland Heritage Foundation.
"Call 911?"
"Fight fire 'self?"
"No time call."
"Fight fire!"
I began to run toward the fire, thinking I could stomp it out with my heavy boots. Then I remembered the shovel I'd had in my hands a few moments earlier. So I ran back and got the shovel.
Wearing insulated boots and a heavy coat is like gaining 10 pounds and the run was a difficult, plodding sort. But it wasn't far.
I beat the edges of the burning area with my shovel. Tiny flames went sneaking through the short, sparse grass between the unmowed area and the house. I wasn't too worried. They would die out before they reached the house. Still, I beat and stomped them, too.
When I felt that the fire was sufficiently slowed by the beating, I ran (plodded) the short distance up a steep slope to the back of the house, pulled the hose off the rack, connected it and turned it on, then ran to the fire with the other end.
How ***# long does it take for water to travel through 150 feet of hose, anyway? I checked the connections and employed the shovel some more. Finally water came running out of the hose.
Within a few minutes all flames were gone. I wetted the perimeter of the burned area well, just in case any sparks or coals were hiding, waiting for me to leave so they could come out and play. I also drenched the pile of ash that started the whole thing.
Well. Wasn't that exciting?
I quickly finished my job at the asparagus bed and went inside. I dropped my smoke-scented clothes in the laundry and took a shower -- which included washing the smoke from my hair.
I can now add "fights fires" to the list of things I do around here.
No more will I assume that 24 hours is long enough for hot coals to die. Fortunately, this was a rather cheap lesson for me. Learn from my error.
And, just to keep the fire chief off my back, if this happens to you, call 911;)
This is the burned area behind my house. Fortunately, pretty small, in spite of
a stiff wind that blew as the flames danced.