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Lettuce be friends! Monty Don explains how you can take a leaf out of his book

My aim is to eat salad leaves from the garden at least once a day, with as wide an assortment as possible but nearly always with lettuce as the key component. 

If you also factor in lettuce eaten by my family and friends, plus those that bolt and end up either being fed to the chickens or thrown on the compost heap, I suspect we grow at least 1,000 lettuce plants a year. Over 40-odd years that makes for a fair bit of experience.

Back in the 1960s when I was growing up, lettuce was invariably accompanied by hard-boiled eggs (which I hated and still dislike to this day), beetroot and tomato and served with salad cream or, on special occasions, homemade mayonnaise. 

British gardening expert Monty Don shared his advice for good germination, slug protection and a steady supply when growing lettuce. Pictured: Monty with a selection of lettuce leaves from his garden

The concept of a green salad or even salad dressing was still lodged on the other side of the Channel.

But fresh lettuce, picked, washed, dried and eaten within the hour, accompanied only by good olive oil and either balsamic vinegar or lemon juice, salt and pepper, is a dish worthy of anyone. I never tire of it.

Of course there is lettuce and lettuce. In fact there are four kinds of lettuce – cos (or romaine), loose-leaf, butterhead and crisphead (or iceberg).

Cos are the most common and include garden favourites like ‘Little Gem’ and ‘Lobjoits Green’; I also grow a good red cos and ‘Winter Density’. The leaves grow upright and tight and the combination of crispness and rich flavour makes it a must for any garden anywhere.

ASK MONTY 

Q How should we go about reducing the size of our 6m-high garrya shrub?

Judy Hedges, Hertfordshire

A As a rule, Garrya elliptica should not be pruned unless it becomes too big for its position. In March or April, remove any crossing or damaged stems and then reduce the remaining stems by a third to a half. Repeat over a few years until you have a good framework in the size you require.

Q If I were to plant daffodil and snowdrop bulbs prior to laying new turf, would they eventually appear through the grass?

Paul R Taylor, East Yorkshire

A Yes, but although the best time to plant daffodils coincides with the best time to lay turf – September – snowdrops are far better being planted ‘in the green’, i.e. when they still have leaves, in February or March, rather than as dry bulbs in the autumn.

Q Most of the wallflower plants I grew from seed this year have failed to produce buds or flowers. If I leave them will they flower next year?

Susan Tomlin, Leicestershire

A The most likely problem is your soil is too rich, causing them to produce lots of foliage but few flowers. Wallflowers perform best in poor, alkaline soil such as chalk or limestone.

Write to Monty Don at Weekend, Daily Mail, 2 Derry Street, London W8 5TT or email [email protected] Please include your full name and address. We regret Monty can’t reply to letters personally.

Loose-leaf lettuce have the advantage of being ‘cut and come again’, meaning you can cut off some leaves and it will regrow for another harvest or even two. 

I grow ‘Green Oakleaf’ and ‘Red Oak Leaf’ as well as green and red ‘Salad Bowl’ and ‘Cocarde’. The one to avoid is ‘Lollo Rossa’, which is tasteless.

Butterhead lettuce are, as the name suggests, soft, buttery and – when eaten very fresh – lovely. They include ‘Tom Thumb’ (hardy, very small and delicious), ‘Marvel Of Four Seasons’ and ‘All The Year Round’.

Crisphead, or iceberg, lettuce have a bad name due to the watery tastelessness of most mass-produced specimens. But I grow ‘Webbs Wonderful’ and ‘Saladin’ and both are very good. 

They are the hardest lettuce to grow in the UK but the secret is to harvest them quite small – the size of a grapefruit – and eat them within a day of cutting.

Whatever type of lettuce you like to eat, the following method ensures good germination, slug protection and a steady year-round supply.

I start by sowing the seed in a seed tray and put it to germinate in the greenhouse (a cool windowsill or porch is just as good). When the seedlings are large enough to handle I prick them out individually into plugs.

I then put these into a cold frame, open to the elements but where I can check daily for slugs. This ensures that each lettuce grows strongly and well from the very beginning.

When they are big enough to be lifted from the plug with the roots holding the compost together, I plant them out in a grid with each plant spaced about 23cm apart. 

This results in much less wastage of seed than when sowing direct, while also giving each lettuce enough room to grow strongly – which deters slug attack.Using seed sparingly also makes successive small crops more viable and avoids bolting, which is a likely occurrence in hot, dry weather. 

MONTY’S PLANT OF THE WEEK: LIGULARIA ‘THE ROCKET’

Monty said ligularias (pictured) thrives in soil that isn't too light and is best kept out of the midday sun

Monty said ligularias (pictured) thrives in soil that isn’t too light and is best kept out of the midday sun 

The ligularias around my pond are coming into flower and the first is always ‘The Rocket’, its tall black stems each carrying a torch of small yellow flowers, above heart-shaped leaves with serrated edges. 

It looks best when threaded through a border, like a dramatic wildflower in tall grass. Like all ligularias, it likes damp, rich soil and will thrive in a pond’s marginal areas. 

But it’s a perfectly good border plant too, as long as the soil is not too light and it’s kept out of the midday sun. It always recovers after the cool of night, though, and a good soak.

THIS WEEK’S JOB: PRUNE FRUIT TREES

To give apples and pears their summer prune, cut back to about 5cm beyond this season’s fruit. Leave any shoots you require to create structure and tie them in. If further growth is needed, leave the last 15cm untied – they’ll curve upwards and so grow faster.


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