by Steve Johnson
- Not enough sun
- Poor soil
- No fence to keep out animals
- Didn’t pay attention to bugs until it was too late
- Chose a crop that was difficult to grow
Some crops are much more problematic than others. A lot of people begin with tomatoes. What could be more delicious than a great big juicy red tomato fresh out of the garden? Tomatoes tend to be finicky to grow and they are the target of many insects and plant diseases. Or take asparagus. We have a wonderful asparagus patch. When people see it they say, “I love fresh asparagus; it’s so expensive in the store; I want to grow my own.” I try to dissuade people from growing asparagus. The seeds take three to four weeks to germinate; it needs excellent, well-drained soil; after planting you should ideally wait three years before the first harvest, and during those three years you need to keep it weeded and fertilized.
PLANT ACCORDING TO YOUR MICRO-CLIMATE
First you have to remember that lettuce is a cool weather crop. In the States, I grew it in the spring. By mid-June it would bolt (go to seed) and the leaves would become bitter. Where I live in the highlands of Costa Rica the climate is like eternal spring, so I can grow lettuce all year long. It will eventually bolt, but this takes months to happen. In the States I would break off a leaf and if a milky substance oozed out, I knew it was ready to bolt and the leaves were getting bitter. Here in the highlands that rule does not hold true. If you live below, say, 3,000 feet where it is hot you should grow your lettuce under shade cloth and you should grow leaf lettuce rather than head lettuce. My friend Justin Dolan grows lettuce in the hills above Playa Esterillos, at just a few hundred feet above sea level, and gets good results.
TIME OF YEAR
The rainy season has begun, so now is a good time to plant. Due to the heavy rains in September and October I avoid having lettuce in the garden during those months. So I stop planting by mid-July and start up again in November. I grow lettuce right through the dry season. During the dry season I water daily for the first two weeks and then every other day until harvest.
SEEDS OR FLATS (SEMILLAS O BANDEJAS)
Lettuce seeds are tiny, almost like dust, and should be planted near the surface. During the dry season I plant them directly in the garden and water them daily. During the rainy season I plant them indoors in flats and move them out to the garden after a couple of weeks. Many hardware stores (ferreterías), pet stores, and feed and seed stores carry lettuce seeds. I have had much better luck buying them from the metal seed cans than from the paper packets. Recently I have begun buying flats. It took a long time to discover a ferretería that carried small flats. Initially I found a couple of places that sold to farmers and the minimum size flat contained 50 plants, way more than I needed.
I have built up very rich, well-drained soil with high organic content. Lettuce is not a particularly heavy feeder like, say, tomatoes or onions, and with my rich soil I frequently don’t have to apply fertilizer. After a couple of weeks, if the plants look a little under par, I will give each plant just a pinch of a well-balanced granular fertilizer such as 10-10-10. I always use “formula completa” fertilizer, which contains micro-nutrients. I never had a micronutrient deficiency problem when gardening in the States, but the high rainfall here in Costa Rica tends to leach micronutrients out of the soil. I make a small hole about two-three inches from the plant and two inches deep, and cover the fertilizer with soil.
PESTS & DISEASES
It is hard to give advice in this area because, after five years of growing lettuce here, I have yet to have a pest or disease. In the States, we once had slugs, which we quickly eliminated by putting out saucers of beer at night. Another time we had cutworms eating the young plants. Cutworms frequently feed at night so not long after sundown we went out with a flashlight and handpicked them off the lettuce plants.
There are many good resources for growing lettuce on the internet. Here are a couple of links that I like.
- Gardening in Costa Rica with Steve: Soil Solutions
- Gardening in Costa Rica with Steve: The Challenges
- Gardening in Costa Rica with Steve: Meet Steve and See What He’s Growing (Video)
- From the Peace Corps to Retirement in Costa Rica, by Steve Johnson