The reason lettuce is so expensive at the moment is a combination of a few factors. Firstly, lettuce does tend to creep up a little in price in winter and that’s because it is more substitutable to frost and water damage in some areas so not all of the larger producers bother growing it. Demand is generally lower anyway as we swap out summer salads for warming winter soups and the like. What is available does tend to be a little higher in price. More influential factors that have led to prices over the $10 per head mark include the invasion of Ukraine which has pushed diesel and fertilisers into astronomical figures. Farmers rely on fertilisers to grow their crops and diesel to power machinery. Diesel is also used in the transporting of your vegetables. Recent heavy rains and flooding have also meant that crops have been destroyed and some were not replanted in their usual cycles leaving gaps in harvest.
No one likes paying double digits for a head of lettuce at any time and most of us can’t afford to but there are a couple of solutions. First check out local suppliers and small farms as many already produce lettuce and some will, I’m sure, be adding this crop to their list shortly. You will not only be able to obtain cheaper lettuce but contribute to the local economy. A few places to check include our local REKO Ring which is made up of small-scale producers specialising in organic produce. Items change constantly but it’s a good place to track down lettuce and other local yummy produce: openfoodnetwork.org.au/reko-central-coast/shop
There are also many markets and farmers markets on the Coast and nearby so check them out. Gosford City Farmers market is on every Sunday at the Showground in Gosford 7am to midday: gosfordcityfarmersmarket.com.au and Mangrove Mountain Country Markets at Peats Ridge 9am - 2pm Sundays is also another to visit.
GROW YOUR OWN
Lettuce (Lactuca sativa) is amazingly easy to grow and as the Central Coast is a temperate climate, this generally means that you can grow most lettuce year-round. In fact, if there is no danger of frost, the cooler weather is usually better for lettuce crops. Personally, I’ve found Cos Lettuce does really well here, but you may wish to also consider ‘Great Lakes’, ‘Green Cos’, ‘Butternut’, ‘Diamond Gem’ or ‘Green Salad Bowl’. All of which grow exceptionally well in this environment. You can plant seedlings but as with all plants, you will find a far greater selection available in seeds so check with local nurseries and online suppliers. Plant seeds 6mm in depth and 20 to 30cm apart. One important note for Coast gardeners: If the soil temperature is greater than 25C you will find difficulty in getting your lettuce seed to germinate so seedlings may be a better solution in the warmer parts of the year. Lettuce needs a moist and rich soil. It detests drying out and can bolt (come into flower) or die rather quickly if water levels fall sharply so good drainage is a must. Ensure damp soil, not water-logged for your lettuce and water the ground, not the leaves in the early morning and never at night or during the day. This will help deter pests and disease. A nitrogen-rich feed every fortnight will improve the leaf growth and general strength and health of the lettuce. Alternate weeks use a seaweed-based solution for good health as well. If you have loose-leaf varieties, harvest individual outer leaves carefully during growth and whole plants on maturity.
LETTUCE IN POTS
Because of their fast-growing nature, loose-leaf lettuce does well in container gardens. These types of lettuce will be happy in planter boxes, pots, balcony beds or even grow bags and that’s as long as the soil is kept damp and drainage is good. You will still need full sun for best growth and feed fortnightly with a liquid-based solution to avoid leaf burn from fertiliser build up. A seaweed-based solution at ½ strength is also recommended on alternate weeks. Harvest outer leaves as required and let some plants fully mature if desired. Soil will usually need to be replaced between crops as lettuce as heavy feeders. Lettuce varieties with firm hearts, like iceberg, can also be grown in these sorts of containers but just be aware that firm hearted lettuce are more prone to fungal diseases in containers. A few container-friendly lettuce for you to consider: 'Green Mignonette' is a sweet tasting favourite that does extremely well in containers. 'Cos Verdi' has a compact growing habit and loose leaves with a lovely crisp heart and is also cold-tolerate. 'Baby Cos' is a loose-leaf lettuce that is also cold-tolerant and does extremely well in containers.
Probably the most challenging problem you may face once you have your lettuce growing is pests. Those tender green leaves are so tempting to snails, slugs and any hungry garden visitors, especially in winter. The best solution for chemical free, environmentally safe lettuce is to net your garden bed. Aphids can present a problem so regular checking and treatment may be needed. Handpick them off and squash and spray lettuce with lightly soapy water to deter them. For snails and slugs, I have on many occasions suggested on this page a myriad of ways to deal with the snails and slugs in the garden including the eco-friendlier covering of your seedlings with nets or cloches and planting perimeter crops visitors you consider pests can eat instead. For more information on Australian Native Snail and Slugs, there are over 1,000 of them - factsaboutsnails.com/types-of-snails/native-australian-snails
Cheralyn Darcey is a gardening author, community garden coordinator and along with Pete Little, hosts ‘At Home with The Gardening Gang’ 8 - 10am live every Saturday on CoastFM963. She is also co-host of @MostlyAboutPlants a weekly botanical history & gardening podcast with Victoria White. Archived articles can be found on Cheralyn’s Blog: www.florasphere.com
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