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If They Grow It, They Will Eat It!

Convincing children to eat their veggies may sound like an impossible task, but a research study conducted by Parmer, et al. found that “second graders who participated in school gardening as part of a nutrition education class increased their selection and consumption of vegetables at school, compared to second graders who did not participate in gardening”.[1]

Lettuce (Lactuca sativa) is a great crop to grow in a school garden.

Lettuce (Lactuca sativa) is a great crop to grow in a school garden.
Patricia Whitener, ©2019, Clemson Extension

If you’re an educator who wants to engage kids in growing and tasting fresh vegetables, lettuce is a great crop first crop, and it can be grown throughout South Carolina starting in February through early March.

Lettuce (Lactuca sativa) is an annual crop that is related to sunflowers. It prefers cool soil and air temperatures, growing best between 45 and 65 °F, which means that winter in South Carolina is the perfect time to grow lettuce. For information on growing lettuce, see HGIC 1312, Lettuce.

Warm weather will create bitter leaves and prompt the plant to bolt, which simply means it will complete its short life cycle more quickly by sending up flower stalks, creating seeds, and then dying. Fortunately, slow bolting and heat resistant varieties are available.

The easiest of all the lettuce types to grow is leaf lettuce. This type allows gardeners to ‘cut and come again’, meaning you can cut the outer leaves and leave the rest of the plant to grow and harvest more later. Leaf lettuce is also quite beautiful with chartreuse greens, ruby reds, and frilly leaves. Heat-tolerant varieties include heirlooms, such as ‘Black Seeded Simpson’ and frilly ‘Lolla Rosa’. One of my favorites is the fancy All-America Selection winner called ‘Red Sails’. For information on growing heirloom vegetables, see HGIC 1255, Heirloom Vegetables.

Other types of lettuce that can be grown just as easily are Butterhead or Bibb lettuce. These types form loose heads that are harvested all at once. Romaine lettuce is very nutritious and easy to grow. There is even an heirloom variety named ‘Parris Island Cos’ after a famous South Carolina location. Cos is another name for romaine lettuce.

For an exciting culinary experience, try growing a mesclun mix. These custom seed blends typically include several leaf lettuce varieties along with spicy or sweet greens, such as kale, mustard, radicchio, endive, or arugula, combined with cool season herbs. Mesclun mixes are designed for harvesting while the greens are young and tender, much like store bought spring mixes.

Even if you don’t have a school garden, lettuces work well in containers as long as they hold at least 4-8” of soil and have drainage holes. Fill pots with good quality bagged potting mix and sow seeds according to package directions. Water well and in 50 to 75 days, you will have fresh, ready to eat salad.

One useful bit of trivia is that lettuce seeds need light to germinate. So, when sowing seeds, lightly press them into the soil to ensure good contact, but don’t cover them up. Lettuce has to have consistent moisture during the growing season. Harvest in the morning when leaves are plump and flavorful. Use sanitized scissors to snip leaves into a clean harvest basket. A salad spinner makes a great addition to your classroom kitchen supplies and makes washing and drying lettuce easy and fun. For more information on safe handling of lettuce and leafy green salads, see HGIC 3518, Safe Handling of Lettuce & Leafy Green Salads.

  1. https://articles.extension.org/pages/74565/school-gardens-may-increase-kids-vegetable-consumption

If this document didn’t answer your questions, please contact HGIC at hgic@clemson.edu or 1-888-656-9988.

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