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Wednesday, April 16, 2008 02:20 pm

Garden-fresh salad

Cool spring temperature are ideal for growing leafy greens

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Spring is my favorite time of year. Daffodils are blooming, lawns turns bright green, and it’s time to plant a vegetable garden. Spring greens, such as lettuce and spinach, are easy to grow in a sunny location in your back yard or in a container garden on a patio. You are sure to enjoy the best-tasting salad with greens that you have grown. Cool spring temperatures are ideal for growing leafy greens. Lettuce and spinach are cool-season crops that thrive when the average daily temperature is between 60 and 70 degrees. Lettuce and spinach cannot withstand hot summer days; high temperatures cause plants to bolt, or produce a seed stalk. The leaves may become bitter and have a poorer texture. Leaf lettuce (looseleaf), butterhead (Bibb), and romaine (Cos) lettuce may be planted when the soil is dry enough for the surface to be raked. Water is essential for seed germination and the establishment of seedlings. Plant fresh seeds 1/4 to 1/2 inch deep. The first planting of spinach may be made as soon as the soil is prepared in the spring. Plant seeds 1/2 inch deep. If the soil was prepared in the fall, seeds may be broadcast over frozen ground or snow cover in late winter; they will germinate as the soil thaws. A uniform supply of moisture is essential in producing rapid leaf development. Lettuce and spinach leaves may be cut when they are large enough to be used. Leaf lettuce reaches its maximum size in 40 to 60 days. Spinach may be harvested 37 to 45 days after planting. Spinach is harvested in two different ways: Remove the outer leaves when they are 3 to 6 inches long and allow younger leaves to develop, or harvest the whole plant when at least five or six leaves have formed. Just before serving, rinse the greens in cold water. Lettuce and spinach should be eaten while fresh and crisp. Leafy vegetables contain more vitamins and minerals and fewer calories than any other vegetables. Remember, the darker the green, the more beta-carotene. The nutritional value of lettuce varies with the variety. In general, though, lettuce is a good source of vitamin A and potassium and a moderately good source of vitamin C, calcium, iron, and copper. The spine and ribs of the leaves provide some dietary fiber. For more information on recommended varieties and on growing and harvesting lettuce and spinach, go to the University of Illinois Extension’s “Watch Your Garden Grow” Web site, www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/veggies/.
Jennifer Fishburn is a horticulture educator with the University of Illinois Extension Sangamon-Menard Unit. Contact her at fishburn@uiuc.edu.
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