In autumn, most of the garden has already been harvested. In the shops, the variety of fresh and locally harvested vegetables is increasingly limited to winter vegetables such as turnips and cabbage. Things get tight, especially with fresh salads. The lettuce plants that are still to be harvested, such as radicchio and endives, usually contain a clear bitter note, which quickly spoils the enjoyment of salads, especially for children. However, you can do something about it. Grow delicious, nutty lamb’s lettuce in your own garden. Here’s how easy it is.
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Characteristics of lamb’s lettuce
There is not only one lamb’s lettuce, but lamb’s lettuce is an entire plant genus that bears the beautiful name Valerianella. There are around 80 types of lamb’s lettuce that grow in North Africa, North America and Eurasia all over the world. In Europe, too, you can find more than one type of edible lamb’s lettuce.
The most prominent representative of the genus is the common lamb’s lettuce or Valerianella locusta. It has been collected as a wild herb throughout Germany since time immemorial. The long home history of lamb’s lettuce can be clearly seen from the many names that have been given to it in German-speaking countries. From Rapunzel in Saxony and Thuringia to rabbit ears in Lower Franconia to nutmeg salad in Switzerland and bird salad in South Tyrol.
Location, soil and light requirements
However, the variety of names, which only increased from central Germany towards the south, also shows us that lamb’s lettuce was not necessarily native to the harsh north. This still gives us clues as to what the lamb’s lettuce can expect in your garden – a location with as much sun as possible.
Otherwise, the lamb’s lettuce has a preference for calcareous clay soil, but if you can’t offer it that, it probably won’t be shy. Lamb’s lettuce really does thrive almost anywhere, even in a window box.
Growing lamb’s lettuce in the garden
Growing lamb’s lettuce in the garden is a good idea for garden maintenance reasons. Lamb’s lettuce develops an impressive root mass that makes it a good soil conditioner. It is therefore even used as green manure. Lamb’s lettuce also belongs to the valerian family. This is a family of plants not commonly found in gardens and can be used to add variety to a crop rotation to allow the soil to recover. In mixed cultures, the valerian plant gets along very well with tomatoes (underseed), radishes and leeks.
Lamb’s lettuce can be sown twice a year. The best times for this are April and late autumn. It can start in spring, when the soil is likely to maintain a temperature of over 5 degrees permanently. In regions of Germany with a particularly favorable climate, this can be earlier than April.
However, lamb’s lettuce can also be used as a catch crop, so you can sow it in August, when many types of vegetables have just left empty beds. However, you can also sow lamb’s lettuce when the first frosts are already threatening. You will probably be able to harvest this season in a nice and sunny location and possibly with the help of a little fleece (see also wintering below).
Sow directly into the garden bed. Stored lamb’s lettuce seeds remain viable for two to three years. You simply draw a 2 cm deep groove in the bed with the rake and scatter the seeds as evenly as possible. Then the seeds are covered with a little soil and trampled on a little. If you make a little effort when scattering the seeds so that the individual grains do not end up too close together in the soil at regular intervals, you will save yourself having to separate the individual lettuce plants later. If you have sown too densely, you cannot avoid thinning out the seedlings so that the individual plants can develop well.
Would you like more detailed information on the sowing density? Here you go: The row spacing should be 10 cm. The distance between the individual seeds should be 1 cm if you just want to harvest the plants as you sown them. However, you can also sow small clusters (row spacing 10 cm, cluster spacing also 10 cm). This is useful if you have to deal with a lot of foreign growth, which can be weeded out more easily. Also, tufts are a little easier to harvest. For very busy garden owners, this can sometimes be the deciding factor as to whether there is a fresh salad for dinner or not.
If you tend to be the opposite, i.e. if you find such tips on exact sowing intervals in the garden rather exaggerated, you can do it quite differently. You simply sow the lamb’s lettuce and let it grow. Then you should be sure, however, that huge numbers of competitive plants have not been able to plant their seeds in the bed to compete with lamb’s lettuce.
Water and fertilize lamb’s lettuce
With lamb’s lettuce sown in spring, you should ensure constant moistening and, if necessary, watering, especially in a dry spring. Lamb’s lettuce in autumn is usually less problematic when it comes to watering, because at this time of year the soil is already sufficiently moistened by dew formation.
You don’t need to fertilize your lamb’s lettuce at all, you should actually refrain from doing so. Because lamb’s lettuce stores a lot of nitrate anyway, and artificial fertilizers in particular could quickly increase the nitrate content to levels that are questionable in terms of health. In addition, lamb’s lettuce is sensitive to salt, and uncritical mineral fertilization quickly increases the salt content to levels that are no longer appropriate. It is also completely sufficient for good growth if you remove foreign growth (weeds) that “steal” the nutrients from the lamb’s lettuce.
Because of the nitrate content, lamb’s lettuce should always be harvested after sunset. It has a lower nitrate content in the evening than in the morning because the nitrate accumulates in the plant at night and is broken down in the sunlight during the day.
It is simply harvested with large kitchen scissors, so the roots remain in the ground. First of all, this has the advantage that you do not harvest a lot of sand at the same time. Speaking of sand: If you want to harvest large quantities of lamb’s lettuce, it can be worthwhile to gently shower it with a very fine spray jet from above at midday. If before e.g. B. the weather was unsettled, the lamb’s lettuce is sometimes covered all over with fine sand. You then wash away some of it, so that washing the salad in the kitchen is much faster.
If you have sown a variety that develops handsomely large leaves, you could only harvest the leaves around the hearts in this salad. If you cut these off one to two centimeters above the ground, i.e. do not damage the roots, the lettuce will grow back several times. Of course, you could also harvest a variety that only forms small and decorative rosettes in this way, but you won’t put up with the fiddling for long.
Of course, the annual lamb’s lettuce is not “overwintered” in the true sense of the word, but a lamb’s lettuce sown very late in the year can go through winter times when it needs protection. If he gets this, e.g. B. by covering with garden fleece, you can continue harvesting well into the winter.
Most lamb’s lettuce varieties have now been bred to be fairly hardy, even in northern regions. You can now harvest this lamb’s lettuce, which was sown into winter, until persistently low temperatures make it impossible to harvest (frozen) leaves. When the ground is open again in early spring and the lamb’s lettuce begins to grow, harvesting continues until around April, and then you can decide. You can harvest the last seedlings with the roots or – if lamb’s lettuce is planned in the bed anyway – shoot a few lamb’s lettuce into bloom and let them sow them yourself. However, like the plant itself, the seeds first need a (renewed) exposure to cold before they reach their optimum germination capacity. The self-sown lamb’s lettuce could therefore not appear until the following year.
Then you could still grow lamb’s lettuce on this bed. Because this does not make any great demands on crop rotation and is self-compatible. You can therefore usually grow lamb’s lettuce several times in a row on one bed without having to fear a loss of yield. However, with regard to plant health, this is not strictly recommended, especially with lamb’s lettuce as the main crop. Perennial mixed cultures in changing combinations are definitely more advantageous.
Pests and diseases in lamb’s lettuce
Aphids and birds love the tender lamb’s lettuce. Nettle manure helps against the former, and you might simply treat the latter to a few lettuce leaves. If not, you can pull a string across the bed or stretch a net over it.
If fungal diseases such as downy mildew or powdery mildew appear on your lamb’s lettuce, you should not bother with these diseases for long, but rather get seeds of a resistant variety.
The common lamb’s lettuce “Valerianella locusta” is the most widespread cultivated form, which is bred in several varieties. When buying the seeds, you should pay attention to their suitability for certain seasons, these varieties are z. B. offered:
- “Stuttgart lamb’s lettuce”
- very aromatic
- especially small-leaved variety
- tender lettuce leaves
- develops dark green oval leaves
- is known for high yield
- Sow August to September or overwinter
- grows very upright
- new breed
- dark, oval leaves in an upright habit
- Due to their stable structure, they keep very well after harvest
- very robust and known for high yield
- Leaves are round and relatively thick
- ‘Favor’ is suitable for year-round cultivation
- “Dutch broad-leaved lamb’s lettuce”
- delivers particularly large leaves
- enable an all-round harvest with regrowth
It is definitely worth trying several varieties of lamb’s lettuce. There are delicious lamb’s lettuce varieties that clearly taste like hazelnuts.
The plant genus of lamb’s lettuce also includes the “Rhenish lamb’s lettuce”, the second cultivated variant of the wild lamb’s lettuce with the botanical name “Valerianella eriocarpa”. Also known as “woolly lamb’s lettuce”, the crop used to be grown quite extensively in the region around Cologne. It has slightly longer and lighter leaves than the “Valerianella locusta” and is said to be particularly suitable for overwintering cultivation, with otherwise the same cultivation requirements.
Lamb’s lettuce usually turns out to be a very grateful plant in the garden. It is probably the mildest lettuce that you can harvest fresh from the garden in our climate, even in winter. It contains an exceptional amount of folic acid, a B vitamin that is processed in high doses by pregnant women. For the rest of humanity, eating lamb’s lettuce is also recommended. It is very low in calories with a high content of healthy ingredients and, as a valerian relative, also relaxes the stomach and nerves.