Picking from the outside in
Conventional growing and grocery shopping dictates that we buy a whole lettuce. A nice looking big round thing with all its leaves on. When shopping in your garden, it is quite different…
Green leafy vegetables are a substantial part of our garden. They are (usually) extremely easy to grow (the exception being our summer, when the heat wilts them easily or the torrential downpours drown them…). In winter however, we have an abundance of greens, mostly self sown. Chinese greens, lettuces, wasabi lettuce, salad mallow, and numerous other green leafy vegetables flourish. We do not cut them down when they are mature and store them in the fridge. We pick them leaf by leaf.
The plant grows from its heart, the very centre (core) of the plant. So when you pick leaves from the outside of the plant, the plant keeps growing. When you don’t over pick, and ensure there are still plenty of leaves left on each plant, they will still flourish. Even when they bolt (shoot up from the heart, to prepare to produce flowers and seed off), you can still pick the bottom outside leaves to eat. They will get more and more bitter when the plant bolts, but I was told that bitter foods are good for the liver, and as long as you mix the older leaves with some younger ones in your salad, there should not be a problem with the taste.
If we notice some of the bottom leaves not looking so well (browning or spotting etc), we pull those off and drop them around the plant as mulch. This ensures the plant gets what it needs to keep growing, as the leaves break down and deposit minerals into the soil. The minerals a plant deposits are those it is rich in and therefore those minerals it needs to absorb from the soil. This way you keep the cycle going.
If you look after your lettuces and other green, leafy vegetables, depending on the time of year, you can get months out of them instead of just a single use. After the lettuces bolt, they produce lovely little flowers that attract bees and other beneficial insects. Then, once they have gone to seed, you can harvest the seed, or let them self sow to allow them to pick the best spot for themselves to come up next year. Self sown plants seem to be stronger and more resilient, and even though they may come up somewhere in the garden where it is not the most convenient, that is the spot they have chosen so they must like it and will thrive there.
So many benefits of picking as you go in the garden: a lot of variety in your salads, strong, healthy and long lasting plants (as long as the soil is good and good mulching and composting processes are in place…), and the next generation of self sown plants can be stronger and more resilient. Who wants to buy lettuces at a supermarket?