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spinach

I plant lettuce seeds about three-to-five to a square inch. To thin and harvest throughout the season, I pull several plants at at time out by the roots. Then I break off the roots, and inspect the leaves for blemishes, rot, and pests. Click on the images if you wish to see the photos in greater detail.

Here’s hoping your home kitchen garden is producing stuff you can eat. By now, many northern hemisphere kitchen gardeners are eating young lettuce, spinach, and other greens from their yards. I recently explained that I plant lettuce close so the plants are very crowded, and that I harvest whole plants through the season as a means of thinning down to the few plants that grow to maturity.

With plants crowded, the lettuce can prevent water from evaporting and cause leaves to rot.

Because of comments from my friend at Inch By Inch, Row By Row, It occurred to me that if you’re new to kitchen gardening, you might never have dealt with fresh-picked produce. While most produce from your home kitchen garden will taste better than any you buy in a store, it will also pose challenges that store-bought produce doesn’t.

Pick, Clean, and Eat

Store bought greens are usually free of soil, insects, and dried plant matter. Growers, packagers, and produce associates rinse produce and selectively remove damaged leaves. When you get it home, it’s nearly table-ready, though there may be a few leaves you want to remove… and you probably rinse to reduce your chances of eating pesticides.

A slug baby hides under a rotting leaf near the bottom of a lettuce plant I just pulled from my home kitchen garden. The krinklier the variety of lettuce, the more places there are for these chewy pests to hide.

It’s hard to avoid dirt when you’re dealing with home-grown produce. Especially growing lettuce the way I do, you’re going to get soil on your plants when you thin/harvest. As well: there are likely to be insects, and possibly slugs and snails, on your lettuce plants. They aren’t necessarily there to eat your plants; insects hang out just about everywhere in your garden.

So, for most gardeners there’s a greater time commitment to serve home-grown lettuce than there is for serving store-bought greens. Here’s how I prepare lettuce from my garden:

Picking—Through most of the season, I thin my lettuce beds by pulling clusters of plants. I immediately snap off the roots of the plants and toss them aside, but not all the soil goes with the roots. I try to brush off any large deposits of soil. And, before I put the leaves in a bowl to take inside, I inspect for slugs and remove any I find.

Another slug on my lettuce, this one unfurled and roaming. I’ve heard that backyard chickens will eat slugs in a kitchen garden. Raises the question: what would I be cleaning off my lettuce leaves if I had chickens?

In the spring, if there are slugs, they’re usually slug babies. These are smaller than pencil erasers, and they especially like my densely-packed lettuce beds; plants pressed together hold in moisture, and I’m pretty sure lettuce tastes good to slug babies.

Cleaning—No, what I do in the garden to freshly-picked lettuce isn’t cleaning. Cleaning happens in my kitchen. There, I fill a large bowl with cold water and I float all the lettuce leaves in it. Leaves float, but soil on them quickly loosens and sinks. As well, pieces of mulch, weed seeds, and other random organic matter I may not want to eat may float free from the lettuce leaves. This isn’t a big deal, because I’m a bit obsessive about eating only clean lettuce.

So, I gently stir the lettuce with my hand and then, one-by-one I remove and inspect the leaves. I look for dirt that didn’t wash off in the bowl, and I look for slugs and eggs. Slugs are easy, but eggs? Depending on who lives in your garden, you may find spots on your lettuce that don’t rinse off easily. Usually, these will wipe off with a swipe of a finger or thumb across the wet leaf. I’m not a biologist, but I guess these spots are eggs (alternatively, I guess they could be bug or slug poop)… and while I’m sure they won’t harm me, I’m a tad squeamish about eating them (I’d lose the “eat something disgusting” challenge on Survivor without even looking at the disgusting thing I was supposed to eat.)

A massive thunderstorm splashed soil onto the underside of my lettuce leaves (left), while some critter deposited eggs or poop on the underside of some lettuce leaves. All of this rinses off, though the organic stuff may stick until I rub it underwater with my finger.

Finally, if something about a leaf strikes me as odd, I’ll tear it off and preserve the part that looks tasty. The thoroughly-inspected lettuce goes into a salad spinner, and once spun, to the table (it stays in the spinner’s basket unless we have guests; then it goes in a wooden salad serving bowl).

Too Much Effort?

As laborious as all this sounds, it’s not that big a job. Once floating in water, the lettuce leaves are easy to pick through. I can walk away repeatedly to work on other aspects of a meal, and the lettuce doesn’t complain. In fact, very tender, floppy lettuce often crisps up while floating in my cleaning bowl.

The awesome flavor and money-savings easily pay for this little extra work. Besides, I’ve already worked the soil, cut a furrow, added compost, planted seeds, watered, and harvested. Obsessively inspecting and cleaning my lettuce is a minor additional bump.

While washing this batch of lettuce and spinach, I found a few gross-looking leaves (left), some spinach with organic dirt marks that wiped off easily (center), and sediment in the bowl of rinse water after I finished cleaning the leaves. I’ve already served four salads and lettuce to go on burgers this spring. The greens would have cost more than $10 at the farmers’ market. If I serve salad every day until mid-July, I won’t use all the lettuce and spinach from the garden. We will, however, consume about $50 to $60 of produce. That covers all my expenses for the garden this year, and the harvest has just begun!

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