Spoil Your Mother-in-Law with…Lettuce!

At a recent dinner with my in-laws, I went all out to impress them: hors d’oeuvres, local cheeses and organic wine. But things didn’t go as planned. As I was getting out the wine glasses, my mother-in-law said from a distance: “You’re spoiling us tonight, Francis!

I was delighted, but to my surprise, she wasn’t talking about the appetizers I had bought for the cocktail party, but about the bowl of salad that sat at the end of the table.

Is that from your garden?” She asked.

Mixed greens, parsley, arugula, Swiss chard and kale
An evening’s harvest: Mixed greens, parsley, arugula, Swiss chard and kale (red and green) are on the menu. Photo: Francis C. Cardinal.

The bowl was filled with lettuce, straight from my garden, and it was the middle of November when a lettuce shortage was hitting much of North America. My efforts to grow my own vegetables had suddenly become worthwhile.

If you’ve been following the news lately, or if you make a living selling caesar salad, you’ll know that prices have risen drastically in the last few weeks. Even Europe seems to have experienced issues with iceberg lettuce.

If you followed the news at all in the fall of 2022, you probably heard about the exorbitant prices lettuce was reaching.

Lettuce Be Honest

Without going into the details that explain the sky-high prices of this beloved vegetable, let me give you an overview. A few factors should be mentioned to provide some context.

First of all, we’re talking about lettuce imported from California, especially the romaine and iceberg varieties. It must be said that many (too many?) of our fruits and vegetables come from this American state. So much so that California’s agri-food problems have the potential to affect the price of the grocery basket of many North Americans.

Sign limiting purchase of lettuce to 3 per person
I never thought I would live to see a time when there was a limit to how much lettuce a person could buy. Photo: Francis C. Cardinal.

In this case, drought conditions and the falling Canadian dollar are said to have contributed heavily to these price increases. Some people also talk about diseases that would have wreaked havoc, not to mention everything that causes inflation…

In short, supply is down because there’s less salad on the market, but demand remains. And there you have it, the perfect cocktail for an overpriced Caesar salad.

Back to the Lettuce at Hand

Now you can see why my mother-in-law was so happy to eat fresh lettuce! In fact, she had probably been depriving herself of it for some time. You can also see that this greenery came from the garden as fall was well underway. My trick? A cold frame.

In fact, it was the Laidback gardener who made me want to try a greenhouse made of old windows after reading his article. Actually, the science behind this concept is quite simple. The idea is to create a space where the temperature remains tolerable for cold-hardy varieties of plants in order to keep them alive in the soil. Following the onion principle, layers of air are created to conserve heat. A bit like dressing for a cold day. When you are warm, you remove a peel. In the garden, we want to conserve the heat of the soil in addition to capturing that of the sun.

Here’s what it looks like around my place:

closed cold frame
This is what my cold layer looks like when closed. It’s amazing what you can grow in it… Photo: Francis C. Cardinal.
lettuce in open cold frame
When the weather is good, the tunnel is opened to allow the plants to get as much sun as possible and to avoid too hot a greenhouse effect. Photo: Francis C. Cardinal.
Floating row cover added over lettuce to protect from cold
Finally, a floating blanket is added to the interior to maximize insulation and conserve heat when cold weather arrives. Photo: Francis C. Cardinal.

Equipement and Experience

I’ve tried the old salvaged windows trick. It works, but several times I had to pick up broken glass from my yard. Also, I had trouble storing the heavy wooden structures during the warm season. Now I use a tunnel that consists of hoops, poles and a clear canvas and it’s easy to store.

But the learning process continues and I, as a young padawan, keep in mind the lessons of the Laidback gardener. After some trial and error, I have also determined which varieties of leafy greens are, for us, both profitable, easy to grow and enjoyed by all. Growing vegetables is all well and good…but you have to eat them.

In Conclusion, Here Is My Summary Analysis in Three Points

  1. Timing: I start my seedlings towards the end of the summer in order to plant them in the ground at the beginning of September. It’s important to understand that in the fall, the photoperiod decreases day by day. The amount of sunshine decreases and the plants have less and less light while dealing with cooler temperatures. It is therefore necessary to plant your vegetables before fall sets in to give them time to grow.
  1. The right candidate is the cold-tolerant vegetable: In addition to having grown sufficiently, a vegetable grown in fall conditions must survive the vagaries of the cold season. To do this, a lazy gardener should choose cold-tolerant vegetables such as members of the cabbage family (Brassicas) and many leafy greens. Remember that protection (cold layer) does not provide the necessary growing conditions for a tropical plant such as the tomato.
  1. Producing locally and out of season might be worth it (more and more) : Ironically, this lettuce story has had a profound effect on me. Between the pandemic, climate change, inflation and global economic instability, growing vegetables on my own at low cost is looking more and more like a cost-saving solution. Who knows what the future holds?

In any case, my family and I are already enjoying it, and we plan to keep eating garden salad, with or without inflation.

Here’s a look at what’s left of our garden as of December 18, 2022. We’ll be eating (extra) local and organic salad this holiday season. It was a bit surreal.

Francis Cardinal is a biologist who graduated from McGill University and then from HEC Montréal. Since 2013, he has been a member of the education team at the Montreal Biodome, aprt of Espace pour la vie, where he is responsible for the My Jardin program and the science popularization program. Very sensitive to the environment, Francis uses every means possible to arouse curiosity and bring us closer to nature. Humour and emotion often allow him to make attractive what would otherwise be unnoticed or banal. He considers himself a laidback gardener and has developed a sense of self-criticism in order to accept imperfection and to act only when it is essential.

8 comments on “Spoil Your Mother-in-Law with…Lettuce!

  1. Wow, what a great lunching. Home made is best.

  2. Thanks for sharing the lovely dose of inspiration! Your greens are lovely but I am absolutely swooning over that kale. I bet the colder temperatures make it sugar sweet. To me, California lettuce tastes like the cardboard box it sits in, and regular recalls due to E.coli make growing your own a tastier and safer bet!

    Here in central New York I am growing pea shoots, kale and basil in my sunroom since I didn’t get seedlings started in time for outdoor fall and winter harvests. Recently won a Niki Jabbour book and was inspired by her season extension projects. Hoping for cold frames and caterpillar tunnels in 2023. Happy gardening!

    • Try sprouting mung beans and green lentils. It’s very easy and satisfying and requires o light. I do it in empty 1 litre almond milk containers. They’re ready in about 2 or 3 days.

      • Debbie, I agree, very satisfying to grow green things in winter. I have sprouted mung beans and kohlrabi in jars, and tried lentils as shoots. So pretty and tasty! Happy sprouting 🙂

  3. I don’t see anything that looks like a “floating blanket” in the picture where that term is in the caption. Is it there? Is it just another sheet of plastic? Are there brand names or other terms under which it is sold? Thanks.

    • It’s a product that looks like thin white cloth, usually sold in rolls or by the foot from gardening catalogs. Try looking for insect barrier, frost protection, or floating row cover! There are different weights – some are more sturdy and protect to a lower temperature, and other options let in more light. Happy gardening!

  4. Jt Michaels

    Applauding your work, Francis!
    Curious: clear canvas? It looks like plastic but I’d love it if you could tell me it’s not and, where to buy such a miracle.

    • I have read gardening books (highly recommend Niki Jabbour!) that suggest purchasing actual greenhouse plastic – one can get away with lower quality shower curtain liner or plastic from the hardware store but the general consensus is that they won’t hold up well outdoors. The floating blanket mentioned is sold as row cover or insect barrier and comes in different weights. Happy gardening!

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