Lettuce grows green — and red

Thesis project studies 45 varieties

Can’t get your children to eat lettuce? See if you can get them into lettuce research.

Will Afton, a 27-year-old Baton Rougean working on his master’s degree in horticulture at LSU, wasn’t a big lettuce eater until he began work on his thesis: Planting and evaluating 45 cultivars (cultivated varieties) of lettuce at the LSU AgCenter’s Burden research farm off Essen Lane.

With a USDA specialty grant, LSU horticulturists are growing or will grow lettuce, strawberries, bell peppers and tomatoes under commercial guidelines, Afton said.

“We’re looking at yields that will help farmers choose the best varieties,” he said. “Lettuce is sold by weight. So, the more it weighs, the more the farmer makes on his crop.”

Lettuce (Lactuca sativa) is the foundation vegetable of the world’s salads. The word “lettuce” comes from an Old French word meaning “milky,” like the Latin root word for lettuce, a reference to the plant’s juice.

“Lettuce is 95 to 98 percent water,” Afton said.

Roman writers described a dozen varieties of lettuce, according to the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service website.

“There are hundreds of varieties of edible lettuce today,” Afton said.

Wild lettuce originated in Asia Minor, the trans-Caucasus, Iran and Turkistan, according to the Texas A&M website.

The seed for the 45 varieties of lettuce growing in Afton’s 26-row, 285-foot-long research plot came from seed companies, much of the seed donated, Afton said.

Afton chose seed for the seeds’ plant properties — loose head, tight head, leaf lettuce and color.

“Some I chose just for the name,” Afton said. “This is ‘Drunken Woman Frizzy Head,’” said the graduate student stepping up to the frizzy headed lettuce. “That’s its real name.”

Growing close by was another lettuce Afton chose for its name, “Flashy Trout Back,” a romaine.

Afton likes Lolla Rosso, New Red Fire and Red Salad for color and taste.

Research at the Burden Center helps farmers follow trends among consumers, produce suppliers and restaurants, Afton said.

“There’s a demand for red lettuce,” he said.

Growing up in Baton Rouge, Afton attended Highland Elementary, McKinley Middle and Baton Rouge High. Young Afton was not a lettuce eater.

“There was no good reason,” he said. “There were just a certain few vegetables you ate and nothing else.”

Afton the lettuce researcher likes lettuce on hamburgers and in salads.

“Now, I appreciate extra lettuce on a hamburger,” he said. “I eat a couple of salads a week, and I like it when they throw in some red lettuce.”

Between 1990 and 2008, crisp-
head lettuce production declined by 64 percent, according to the USDA Economic Research Service.

Romaine lettuce production increased almost 400 percent, and leaf lettuce production jumped 77 percent.

“Lettuce isn’t a large commercial crop in Louisiana,” Afton said. “It’s grown mostly in home gardens and for farmers’ markets.”

Home gardeners like leaf lettuce and loose-headed lettuces because the gardener can rob leaves from different plants rather than having to harvest an entire plant.

There’s enough cool weather left to put in a lettuce garden even from seed. Plants, if you can find them at the nursery, offer a faster start on a spring lettuce crop.

Afton used plastic mulch to control weeds and to reduce contact between plants and soil. Drip tape was used for irrigation.

“We water once a day for 30 minutes in the morning,” he said. “Throughout the growing season, we ‘fertigated’ with calcium nitrate at a rate of 50 pounds of nitrogen per acre.

“Fertigation” fertilizes through irrigation lines using a water soluble fertilizer, Afton said.

“Calcium nitrate is extremely water soluble,” he said. “We ‘fertigated’ with 15 pounds of nitrogen a week for three weeks and on Week 4 we used 5 pounds of nitrogen to satisfy the recommended 50 pounds an acre.”

Before the mulch and drip tape went down, Afton applied a pre-planting fertilizer based on soil tests.

He used Mustang Max EC to control spotted cucumber beetle, a lettuce pest despite the bug’s name. The pesticide’s active ingredient is zeta cypermethrin.

“We try to limit pesticide use,” he said.

After harvest, Afton will retire to the lab to analyze the top 10 yielding lettuces and check for, among other things, nitrate concentration.

In the lab, he’ll not only learn to run analysis on his lettuce but how to use the lab’s instruments.

Even in this slow economy, the job market for new horticulturists isn’t bad, Afton said. His “findings” are based on the luck fellow students have had getting work.

“There are so many sides to horticulture,” he said.

There’s turf grass, landscape installation and maintenance (residential and commercial), fruit and vegetables.

“Most people I hear about have a job within a year” of graduation, some faster, he said.

“You still have to search and apply,” he said.

Like other people Afton’s age, some new horticulture graduates start their own companies.

“I work at Clegg’s Nursery,” Afton said. “I see a lot of new lawn companies starting up.”