I believe there are two kinds of gardeners. One is the artist/gardener, who uses flowers and plants the way Monet used watercolors. They turn their plots into canvases full of rich colors and vibrant hues. The other is the chef/gardener, who uses plants to create culinary delights and gastronomic triumphs.

Certainly you can be a little of both, but today I am decidedly thinking as a chef/gardener.

I recently discovered lettuce wraps. First popular in Asian cuisines, lettuce wraps are now found on a wide variety of restaurant menus. I love them because they’re a great way to reduce calories and carbohydrates, and they’re just – well, almost – as satisfying as a poor boy.

Lettuce wraps are easy to create using an infinite array of ingredients. You’ll find plenty of recipes on the Internet, and if you get right on it, you’ll find the lettuce in your own backyard.

In mid-September, blessedly, the cold fronts begin to break through and our Louisiana sauna begins to subside.

This is when lettuce can be seeded. Our planting season extends from September through March, with the harvest ending in May.

There are literally hundreds of different lettuce varieties available to the backyard vegetable gardener. They come in a wide variety of sizes, tastes, textures and colors. Lettuce is commonly divided into categories such as butterhead, romaine, crisphead and loose-leaf varieties. You can also grow mesclun, which is a quick-growing mixture of lettuce varieties combined with other leafy greens and herbs.

Here in Louisiana we can grow everything from romaine to bibb, but crisphead lettuce, the iceberg lettuce you can buy at Rouses or Winn-Dixie, is hard to grow here and not as tasty, so I recommend sticking with loose-leaf or semi-heading varieties.

I always start my lettuce garden with a run to my favorite nursery to get a six-pack of young lettuce plants just to get me started (I’m a bit impatient), but I also begin to plant seeds. 

Lettuce thrives in a rich soil that is high in nitrogen, so add plenty of compost, aged manures or other organic fertilizer to the growing bed. Lettuce is perfect for growing in raised beds. I’ve had great success growing my lettuce in containers such as buckets, large clay pots and even plastic storage boxes.

Lettuce seeds need light to germinate, so simply press them into the soil surface. They also need a lot of water to germinate, so be diligent about watering, and in return you will reap abundant seedlings.

For added insurance, make sure to mulch the lettuce to prevent drought stress – stress from drought or heat will make the lettuce bitter and inedible even with the tastiest of dressings.

And if temperatures drop into the mid-20s or lower, throw on an extra layer of mulch or cover the crop
with a cotton sheet.

Leaf lettuces are fast-maturing and can be ready to begin harvesting just 40 days after planting. It’s a good idea to plant several crops in succession throughout the growing season for continued harvests. I begin harvesting
a little before the full 40 days: I use the tiny seedlings I thin from my containers to add a delicate note to the salad I’m making that evening. You should thin your lettuces so that they stand about 10 inches apart in each direction.

Then, as they grow, I just keep picking the largest leaves. This allows the plants to continue to produce. A bed of leaf lettuce harvested this way can produce salads for a month or more.

As a chef/gardener, growing your own lettuce will reward you with sweet, nutritious goodness – and
it means your next lettuce wrap is just outside your back door.