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Baby lettuce in 27 to 48 days.

When you grow as much baby lettuce as Michael Norton does, you learn a few tricks along the way-tricks that will help any home gardener harvest a surprising profusion of heads.

Norton started Kona Kai Farms in Berkeley 2 1/2 years ago "to demonstrate that French intensive, chemical-free farming methods can be commercially feasible in an urban setting." He raises 10 crops of baby lettuce per year, and this month he will harvest more than 80,000 heads. Growth from seed to harvest takes 27 to 48 days, depending on variety and season. Mr. Norton specializes in gourmet lettuce and salad greens. Varieties include 'Rouge d'Hiver" 'Lollo Russo', 'Sucrine', and 'Reine des Glaces'.

Beneath a protective canopy of bird netting, the raised beds form a patchwork of color and texture. Passers-by who stop to talk often walk away with a few heads (Mr. Norton sells three of any kind for $1). He generously offers advice, and urges gardeners to adapt his techniques to suit their needs. Here are his tips.

Prepare a rich soil mixture. Mr. Norton fills his beds with a medium-weight mix of 50 percent topsoil, 25 percent mushroom compost, and 25 percent manure.

Germinate seeds in flats. You'll save water and reduce fallow time in your raised bed. Start faster-growing varieties directly in beds.

Fertilize before you plant. After loosening the soil, spray the surface with fish emulsion or kelp fertilizer. Repeat spraying every two weeks after plants are in.

Plant in raised beds. They're easier to keep bug- and weed-free, and more comfortable to work. These beds are I foot deep, 5 feet wide, and 24 or 50 feet long.

Space plants to shade the soil. Soil won't dry out as fast, so you'll conserve water.

Water in the morning or evening. If the weather turns hot, frequent misting will cool lettuce and discourage bolting.

Stagger plantings at two-week intervals. This ensures a good supply. If space is limited, plant a mesclun mix to grow a variety of lettuces and greens.

Use shadecloth in hot weather Mr. Norton shades tender seedlings with a 60 percent shadecloth. In a hot climate, you may want to shade raised beds as well. Use denser cloth for hotter climates.

Control insects and snails by keeping plants free of dead or rotted leaves.

After harvest, dig in 1/2 inch of compost before planting another crop.
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Copyright 1988 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Sep 1, 1988
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