March is a period of transition in the New Orleans garden. Warm weather is on the way, so it's out with the greens of winter and in with the tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers of spring and summer. The problem with the way the growing seasons work in this climate for me is that I usually only want to eat lettuce when the weather is hot—precisely when it doesn't want to grow. But I think I've found a few ways to cheat the seasons a little bit, and at the very least, extend my greens into some of the warmer months.
First of all, I always "broadcast seed" lettuce seeds in wide rows, scattering them over the entire area to be planted, instead of in precise, orderly rows. This way, the plants germinate closer together, and as they grow, shade all the dirt around the plants, helping to keep them cool in warmer weather. The added benefi ts of broadcast seeding are that 1. It's fun—who wants to be precise and orderly when you can scatter seeds with wild abandon? And 2. It creates a "living mulch" that blocks out weeds. If necessary, you can eat the thinnings along the way, if more room is needed for the growing lettuce.
I also extend the lettuce season by selecting a spot with afternoon shade. Lettuce can grow with only four hours of sunlight, and morning sun is best. The morning sun's light isn't as harsh or hot as it is later in the day. And if you really want to get fancy, or are just a glutton for creating more work for yourself like me, order some shade cloth from a nursery. Shade cloth is a permeable fabric that lets water and limited amounts of light through. It needs to be staked a few feet above the lettuce, allowing plenty of room for growth and air circulation.
Another way to achieve the same results, but using garden plants instead of store-bought shade cloth, is to plant a bean teepee. First, you start by leaning together four poles of equal height, and lashing them together at the top where they overlap. Plant a few pole bean seeds one inch deep at the base of each pole, and at the same time, broadcast lettuce seeds in the area that will become the inside of the teepee. Cover lettuce seeds with 1/4" of fi ne soil, and water well. The lettuce will grow faster than the beans initially, but once the warm weather hits, the beans will be climbing up the teepee poles enough to start shading the lettuce. Additionally, the beans are legumes that enrich the soil with nitrogen, which lettuces need for good leaf growth.
One type of lettuce I've had success with into May is Forellenschluss, an heirloom variety that seems to be somewhat heat-tolerant and adaptable to a range of conditions. Its speckled appearance also adds variety and interest to the garden, and it has a nice crunch and nutty fl avor even when young.
Even with all this work, if I plant lettuce this month, it will only last barely into the fi rst week of June if I'm lucky, so I make do with planting the only greens that are truly heat-tolerant: collards, Malabar spinach, and New Zealand spinach. Everyone in the South is familiar with collard greens, but it seems that most people only plant them in the fall months, and enjoy them through the winter. If you're a green freak like me, then plant them now for continued harvests through the warmer months. Collards can actually be planted in our climate in every month of the year, so if you're out of inspiration, or think it's between gardening seasons, that is the time to plant collards.
As for Malabar spinach, it is a hardy warm-weather vine from Asia, not really related to spinach at all, but similar in taste when cooked. The red Malabar variety has stunning red stems that try to climb up anything nearby, and produces pretty, shiny green leaves that are almost succulent. It produces all through the summer and thrives on neglect. Just follow the planting instructions on the packet and be sure to plant it next to a fence, or fi nd a trellis to support it.
New Zealand spinach is another warmweather spinach substitute that can be planted now through April. New Zealand spinach grows upright to about 18" tall on self-supporting stems. It grows best by broadcast seeding, so it doesn't have to out-compete the weeds. New Zealand spinach is slightly bitter when eaten raw, but it also seems to thrive on neglect and is busy trying to live up to its full potential, even in the hottest months when everything else in the garden is trying to give up.
I haven't found seed stock of the varieties mentioned above in New Orleans stores, so I buy from online retailers. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (www. rareseeds.com) carries Forellenschluss lettuce, in addition to red Malabar spinach and New Zealand spinach, and several varieties of pole beans if you are inclined to make a bean teepee.