Spring Sprung Splat

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There is an old Chinese proverb that touts “rain in the spring is as precious as oil.” I dare say these words have never been spoken by anyone here on the Oregon coast! Here spring = rain. Even more so if it is spring break. I remember my own mother lamenting the rainy weather spring break always seemed to attract, and we lived in the less-so-rainy Willamette Valley just south of Portland, Oregon. I sang the same song when I had school-age children.

Beautiful fluffy ephemeral flowering cherry blossoms usher in spring.

Rain is precious, and I would rather have more than less. However, boggy, soggy spring clay soil should not be messed with lest you desire a nasty compacted earth. Not good. The difficulty with spring, speaking only from my own experience in the Pacific Northwest, is that we can have some really rockin’ weather. Warm (for us) sunny days are great medicine for the winter weary soul. And us dreamy-eyed, winter-weary gardeners are waiting in the chute, chomping at the bit with seed catalog orders and starts in hand, ready to charge out the gate into the garden! Stop!

Spring is not for the faint of heart or the impulsive soul. Frost dates are quickly forgotten when seduced by the beautiful nursery plants waving their gorgeous herbaceousness in our faces. Some of them could survive some chilliness while others would be dead, dead, deadski. It is hard to reign in that anxious glee like that felt by a child lying awake in the wee hours of Christmas morning.

Winter is nice, a good down time from the physical toils of gardening. A time to relax, rejuvenate, rejoice, dream and plan. I embrace the time. Then around the beginning of February the cabin fever starts to creep in. Cutting back the rose bushes helps a little but the musky, sweet smell of the earth entices. Plotting and planning the garden helps until the sun comes out and I wander outside to find some weeds are already taking up residence. The nerve. Those weeds are unfortunately much hardier than a good number of those nursery temptresses.

Hardiness zones are important to know as they provide a good guide to follow for planting various flowers and vegetables. Some of you enjoy plants as perennials that are an annual in my neck of the woods. Do remember even your own yard has its own microclimates. I have had tomatoes in one area of my property survive longer into fall than those in another equally sunny area. Time and observation are key to understanding your personal property’s special attributes. Some find it helpful to keep a sort of diary. Doesn’t have to be anything more than a three-ring binder or dollar store composition book. Make it as complex or simple as you desire and need.

One of my favorite spring plants is lettuce. Lovely cool weather loving lettuce. So many to choose from! There are so many more than the typical romaine, iceberg, leaf and butterhead lettuces. I know many lettuce aficionados poo-poo the poor, lowly iceberg – but baby that is what I grew up on! At my house lettuce was always iceberg. Densely packed wedges cut from a crisp head slathered in Best Food’s mayo (and only BF. Eastern folks know this same wonderful store-bought mayo as Hellman’s).

I remember exactly the first time I made “from scratch” mayo. It was a Girl Scout cooking class (going for the badge!) with a local neighborhood chef. One of the many skills he taught us was how to make mayonnaise. Up until the age of 12, I had no idea that mayo was egg yolks, oil, salt and vinegar. There was a sort of mini epiphany that day in the classification of things we take for granted. A huge can of worms opened for me because suddenly I was challenged to consider all the everydayness I previously gave not one thought to. Yet years later I found out my grandmother sure as heck knew how to make mayo, catsup (ketchup v. catsup is another blog, I promise), mustard, and a wide assortment of salad dressings. My mother, and like many her age at the time, shunned the made-from-scratch foods for the new, fast, wondrous supermarket shelf jewels. All dressed up in their pretty packaging and ready to go. No muss, no fuss. Also, I only remember seeing iceberg lettuce.

As I said, I still have a soft spot for iceberg and have grown some of my own. They are never the giant firm monsters in the stores but are more flavorful. I am now accustomed to eating very freshly picked lettuce and that right there makes a huge difference.

One of my favorite romaine varieties is Forellenschluss, an old Austrian heirloom. This tasty beauty has a deep red splattered over a brilliant green background that easily lives up to its name, “speckled like a trout.” This variety is a little more heat tolerant than other varieties. Lettuce does prefer cooler weather and will bolt (go to seed and become bitter) when the temperatures start to climb. Some varieties are slower to bolt and shading the area where the lettuce grows can help delay the plant’s inherent race to seed.

Even the baby Red Sails lettuce will tolerate a little frost here and there.

Sometimes I harvest lettuce by plucking a few of the larger outer leaves. Other times I cut it off with a sharp knife, leaving the base and roots to provide me with future lettuce crops. Cut and come again. I honestly have never met a lettuce I didn’t like.

What is your favorite lettuce variety?