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Fresh picked organic lettuce of all kinds at local farmers market

July 27, 2009  By Amy Fuller | The Canadian Press


Fresh picked organic lettuce of all kinds
at local farmers market

Saturday mornings well before dawn, you'll find Ann Slater in her garden wearing a headlamp, gathering bagfuls of lettuce.

July 27, 2009 – Saturday mornings well before dawn, you'll find Ann Slater in her garden wearing a headlamp, gathering bagfuls of lettuce.


Slater is a fixture at the weekly farmers market in St. Marys, Ont., just west of Stratford, where she peddles vegetables and about 50 varieties of lettuce.

Her popular bags of mixed small leaves contain six or seven kinds of lettuce, plus baby Swiss chard and dark red bull's blood beet. Slater also adds dill leaf and Johnny-jump-ups, along with nasturtium for its peppery flavour.

When the market opened in 1992, Slater had already been selling produce on the street for more than a decade. It wasn't until then that she discovered how many people wanted to buy fresh-picked lettuce, rather than store-bought heads which can sometimes be a week old when they arrive on grocers' shelves.

After some experimentation, she developed a knack for growing the leafy vegetable. With its short growth period and sensitivity to heat, lettuce demands painstaking attention through the summer.

Lettuce suits Slater's garden, which is just over half a hectare (about 1 1/2 acres), since it's economical to grow on a small scale.

"It was an easy niche for me to fill," she explains.

Now, salad greens and full-size lettuce compose about a quarter of her income, between $7,000 and $8,000 per year. She grows 30 different vegetables as well.

Lettuce plants fill an area of 0.2 to 0.3 hectare (half to three-quarters of an acre) over the course of the spring, summer and fall. Wide beds with small pathways and multiple crops per season help her maximize the space.

The lettuces are pleasing to the eye as well as the palate, she notes. The various types, with their diverse colours and shapes, look beautiful in the garden, she says.

In the winter, Slater orders seed packets from small companies like Stellar Seeds and Full Circle Seeds in British Columbia or Hawthorn Farm Organic Seeds in Ontario.

As the weather grows hot, she inserts the seeds into soil blocks in plastic trays on her basement floor. Best to start indoors, she says, since lettuce doesn't germinate well in the heat. Indoor germination leaves extra garden space.

Three or four days later, she takes the blocks outside where the light prevents them from turning spindly.

"You have to keep a close eye."

Keeping the roots together with the soil blocks reduces the stress of transplanting the plants into the garden three weeks later.

After another three or four weeks, full-size heads are ready to harvest, or at two weeks, baby leaves are ready to be put into small bags of salad mix.

She sells a 100-gram bag for $3.25, while heads sell for $2, the rate for certified organic lettuce listed on the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario website.

Saturdays, Slater collects ripe heads and dips them in cold water, "to clean off any obvious dirt and shock out any slugs."

Then she drains the heads quickly, stuffs them into plastic bags and sets the bags in boxes in the back of her truck to set up her market stall by 8 a.m.

Pest control isn't a big problem, Slater says. "People don't want to get too many slugs in their lettuce when they get it home, but I guess then they know it's fresh."

Disease isn't a big issue either, and weed control isn't onerous. One week after transplanting the small plants, Slater takes a hoe to any weeds taking root in the beds.

The cycle from planting to harvest ranges from 45 days to two months at most, so the biggest challenge is timing, particularly during hot, dry summers.

This year's cooler weather has made it easier for her to find good days to transplant soil blocks. Slater plants new seeds every week to 10 days to ensure she has a continual crop throughout the season.

In addition to the farmers market, 38 community-supported agriculture customers receive a bag of baby leaves or a full-grown head with other vegetables every Tuesday.

Slater also supplies lettuce to Woolfy's at Wildwood, a restaurant just outside St. Marys that serves seasonal local produce.

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