By: Darcy Larum, Landscape Designer
In late winter, as we thumb through seed catalogs anxiously awaiting the next gardening season, it can be tempting to buy seeds of every vegetable variety that we haven’t tried growing yet. As gardeners, we know that just one tiny, inexpensive seed can soon become a monstrous plant, producing more fruit than we can even eat and most of us only have feet to work with in the garden, not acres.
While some plants take up a lot of room in the garden, lettuce takes very little space and can be grown in the cool temperatures of spring, fall, and even winter in some regions when very few other garden veggies are growing. You can also plant different varieties of lettuce in succession for a longer season of harvesting fresh leaves and heads. One excellent lettuce to try in the garden for a long harvest is Parris Island cos lettuce.
Named after Parris Island, a small island off the eastern seaboard in South Carolina, Parris Island lettuce was first introduced in 1952. Today, it is celebrated as a reliable heirloom lettuce and is a favorite romaine lettuce (also called cos) in the southeastern U.S. where it can be grown in fall, winter, and spring.
It can be slow to bolt in the heat of summer if given a little afternoon shade and daily irrigation. Not only does it offer a long growing season, Parris Island cos lettuce also reportedly has the highest nutritional values of any lettuce.
Parris Island lettuce is a romaine variety with dark green leaves and a cream to white heart. It forms vase-shaped heads which can grow up to 12 inches (31 cm.) tall. However, its outer leaves are usually harvested as needed for garden fresh salads or a sweet, crisp addition to sandwiches, rather than the whole head being harvested at once.
In addition to its long season and exceptional nutrition values, Parris Island is resistant to lettuce mosaic virus and tipburn.
Growing Parris Island cos is no different than growing any lettuce plant. Seeds can be sown directly in the garden and will mature in about 65 to 70 days.
They should be planted in rows set about 36 inches (91 cm.) apart and thinned so that plants are no closer than 12 inches (31 cm.) apart.
Lettuce plants require about an inch (2.5 cm.) of water per week for optimal growth. If growing Parris Island cos lettuce during the hot summer months, they will require extra water to prevent bolting. Keeping the soil cool and moist with layers of mulch or straw will also help it grow through difficult weather.
Keep in mind that like most lettuce types, slugs and snails can sometimes be a problem.
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Gardeners with just a small amount of space can grow leaf lettuce but, if you have more space, you can try growing larger varieties, such as Parris Island romaine lettuce. All types of lettuce (Lactuca sativa) enjoy cooler temperatures, so it is best to grow them in the early spring or late summer and fall. Romaine lettuce produces a head that is about 8 inches tall on a plant that is about 1 foot in height and diameter. When planting, space each seedling about 18 inches apart so that the lettuce has room to grow.
Pick a location in your garden that receives full sun with loamy soil that drains well, and has a pH between 6.0 and 6.5. About a week before you plant the lettuce, mix about a cup of compost into the soil for each head of lettuce.
Water the romaine lettuce frequently, but lightly. Each plant needs an inch of water weekly. The lettuce will wilt if it becomes too dry. You want the soil to stay moist, but not waterlogged. Too much water can lead to rotting of the roots. Avoid watering the leaves, as wet leaves can develop white or gray mold.
Add a 2- to 3-inch layer of an organic mulch, such as wood chips or straw, to the soil to trap in moisture and keep the soil temperature cooler when the weather starts to warm up.
Feed the lettuce every few weeks by side-dressing with compost. Measure a hand's width away from the plant and place a few tablespoons of the compost a few inches deep into the soil.
Pull up any weeds that pop up around the lettuce by hand. If you try to hoe or rake the weeds up, you risk damaging the lettuce's roots.
Use a jet of water to knock any aphids you see off of the plant. Slugs can also be a problem on Romaine lettuce. Pick the slugs off of the plant when you see them and drown them in soapy water. Set out shallow dishes full of beer to trap the slugs if you don't want to touch them.
Harvest the lettuce when the head is about 4 inches in diameter and 8 inches tall. The leaves should overlap to form a somewhat dense head. Either pull the entire head up from the soil or use a garden knife to cut it from the base.
Based in Pennsylvania, Emily Weller has been writing professionally since 2007, when she began writing theater reviews Off-Off Broadway productions. Since then, she has written for TheNest, ModernMom and Rhode Island Home and Design magazine, among others. Weller attended CUNY/Brooklyn college and Temple University.
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Preserve: Due to its high water content, lettuce cannot be easily preserved and should be eaten fresh.
Prepare: Good for use in salads, sandwiches, smoothies, or even soups. Chop off the bottom of heads and separate individual leaves. Wash just before using for longest storage life.
Nutritional: A good source of vitamin(s) A, K, calcium, potassium, and manganese. Also contains good amounts of dietary fiber.
Medicinal: Historically, lettuce was cited as a veritable cure-all. Today, it has been shown to have high levels of beta-carotene. The antioxidant content of darker leaves may offer some protective benefits against disease.
Make this Roasted Mushroom and Romaine Lettuce Salad for your next savory and nutritious meal.