Ray Tyler Lettuce Series 07 – Growing Great Lettuce in the Heat of Summer

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Episode Summary

The Ray Tyler Lettuce Series is a new podcast mini-series hosted by Diego Footer and farmer Ray Tyler to take a deep dive into the technicalities of growing lettuce—from why lettuce is a farm staple to how to master growing the crop consistently to how to effectively market lettuce to maximize profits.

In this episode of The Lettuce Series, Ray and Diego talk about how Rosecreek Farms successfully grows lettuce in the summer. Ray dives deep into the varieties that work for them, their irrigation protocols, as well as other ways they do to help their crops power through the harsh summer heat.

This Episode’s Guest: Ray Tyler

Ray Tyler is the farmer and owner of Rosecreek Farms, a financially successful one-acre market garden nestled in Tennessee. Ray Tyler is also an educator who has helped many farms become more profitable through his coaching services. He also offers his services in the form of his three courses: The Living Farm Course, Caterpillar Tunnel Success, and of course, his Lettuce Masterclass.


Relevant Links

            The Farmer’s Guide To Growing Organic Lettuce by Ray Tyler

            Ray Tyler’s Lettuce Masterclass

            Paperpot Co.’s Kwik Hoops


In this episode of The Lettuce Series

  • Diego introduces the episode on growing lettuce in the heat of summer (00:13)
  • Growing lettuce in southern Tennessee in the summer (01:46)
  • What diminished lettuce quality looks like in the summer (02:45)
    • Greatly diminished lettuce yields (04:43)
  • Irrigation procedures for lettuce in the summer (05:45)
    • Avoid overwatering in the summer (07:19)
  • Deploying shade cloth in the most crucial time of lettuce growth (08:07)
  • Comparing irrigation in the summer vs. other seasons (10:35)
  • Say goodbye to sandbags forever with Kwik Hoops (11:43)
  • Getting young greens established under the summer heat (13:36)
  • Harvesting lettuce in the summer and ensuring the product stays sellable (15:18)
  • Post-harvest washing and packing lettuce in the summertime (18:01)
  • Growing salanova and other lettuce varieties (19:52)
  • Road to becoming a salad king in the south (23:30)

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Ray Tyler Lettuce Series - Episode 7 - Growing Great Lettuce in the Heat of Summer

[00:00:00] Diego Footer: Welcome to Farm Small Farm Smart. I'm your host, Diego, DIEGO. If you've been following along, we're now six episodes deep into our lettuce grower series, and today, it's episode number seven. Episode seven focuses on a challenge that a lot of growers have when it comes to growing lettuce: growing them in the heat of summer.

[00:00:28] While it can be relatively easier to grow lettuce in the cooler times of year, it's much, much harder when things get hot. The plant wants to bolt, the taste gets bitter. How do you overcome that? In episode seven of the Lettuce Grower series, farmer Ray Tyler will share his advice for growing great greens in the heat of summer.

[00:00:52] He's gonna cover keys such as watering, covering the crop, and timing. If you're enjoying this series, be sure to check out Ray's book, the Farmer's Guide to Growing Organic Lettuce. Ray is someone who struggled growing lettuce on and off for years, but he eventually went on to master it. This series and Ray's book gives you the opportunity to learn from someone who knows what you're going through if you're struggling.

[00:01:21] Ray wants to help you succeed, that's why he put a lot of time into this series. That's why he wrote the book. And he also has an online course to help you grow better lettuce. To learn more about Ray's book and course, check them out using the link below. Episode seven of the Lettuce Grower Series. Let's get into it.

[00:01:46] And you're in southern Tennessee. It's summer. It's hot, it's humid. How has summer production of these greens been for you? Do you face challenges at all?

[00:01:56] Ray Tyler: Oh, yeah. No, it's definitely a challenge. You know, last summer was definitely rough. It was a really hot summer. This summer's been� Yeah, it's definitely been hot and humid. It really started about two weeks ago.

[00:02:13] And we noticed about two weeks ago, a drastic decline in the quality of especially the salanova, for sure. And we're definitely quickly, you know, getting our overhead irrigation on. We're gonna be getting our shade cloth set up this week, just �cause we just realized, it just kind of overnight, almost just turned really hot and really humid, and it's game on, game on summer, green time.

[00:02:45] Diego Footer: When you say diminishing quality, is it appearance, is it taste, is it growth rate? All of the above? What are you alluding to when you say that?

[00:02:54] Ray Tyler: It's really the appearance and the yield. So as far as the taste, salanova does fairly well as far as taste. So what it seems like what happens to us is the salanova tends to bolt, so it kind of does this tree-like�there's like this big stalk down the center and you know, it'll get, you know, between four to six inches tall.

[00:03:17] And all these leaves, so it takes a lot longer to harvest. And the yield, I feel like, goes down about 50%. We actually had switched varieties. We lost a big account because our primary mix was the green sweet crisp, and we got a lot of complaints from one restaurant chain that was about 50 pounds a week.

[00:03:43] And we knew that, and we were trying to keep it out of it. And somehow one week, I'm not sure how it happened, just got mixed up in all the orders, we sent 'em, you know, the mix with that green sweet crisp. And they were like, okay, that's it. No more. Don't send this anymore. So we've been�so we took that out of our mix, and we went to the insides, cause we had another restaurant complain about it, too.

[00:04:09] They all call it per se for some reason it's just the chefs in restaurant industry in Memphis are just�they're quite picky with the salad mix. And since we're trying to get a good price for the greens, they're just very, very picky about it. So we switched the green, green and red insights, which we feel like has not bolted near as bad as the other greens, especially with like the butter.

[00:04:38] We don't even grow the butter anymore in the summertime. So that's really the biggest thing with the summer is just the yield. So now what I mean by yield is that since it bolts so fast, you just don't get those really full, dense heads as you would in the fall, winter, and spring, where it's just the head just gets bigger and bigger without that center stalk.

[00:05:05] Diego Footer: Are you also getting less cuts?

[00:05:07] Ray Tyler: We only get one cut in the summertime, from really the middle of May on till the middle of September, we only get one cut per planting.

[00:05:18] Diego Footer: In the green sweet crisp, what didn't they like about that?

[00:05:22] Ray Tyler: They said it was too tough, which it is more of a sturdier green. We love it. We think it's great, but for them, I guess they're really used to that more buttery, soft-textured lettuce, and they just don't like that green sweet crisp for some reason.

[00:05:45] Diego Footer: In terms of procedural issues, it sounds like shade cloths and the works, irrigation. How do you differ your irrigation in summer to help with greens production. And then after that, can you talk about what your trials are gonna be with shade cloth?

[00:06:02] Ray Tyler: Yeah. So this has been our experience. Lettuce needs a lot of water. Now, you can water too much. And we've actually�you kinda have to watch it. What we do is everything is on a timer, and so we have it to run around three times a day, about 15 minutes per cycle.

[00:06:25] And one of those we like to hit in the early evening. Yeah. So like around, you know, 10 o'clock and what that does, that really cools down the bed, the soil, the plant. And then that way during the nighttime, that whole lettuce is really getting cooled down. So what we have experienced is that that nighttime cooling down effect is pretty important for the lettuce from turning bitter, which is a real common problem down here.

[00:06:56] It's just lettuce being really bitter. Like, you could have a really beautiful head of lettuce or really nice stand of salad mix, but without those greens really cooling down, we just personally have experienced more bitterness in the greens, so we feel like, you know, lots of water for short amount of times has really been helpful.

[00:07:19] But I will say that you can over water. So for instance, if you get a rain or overcast day, you know, multiple times, too much water can kill the plants as in too much sunlight. So if it's gonna rain, it's important to go to those timers, you know, and hit hey, you know, a 24-hour delay. Maybe you need to delay it for two or three days, depending on how much overcast there is.

[00:07:47] It's definitely not a silver bullet, like this whole three times a day, you really do have to watch the weather. But if you're looking at 10 to 14 days of sunshine and you know, in the mid-nineties, that three times a day, you know, in the 24-hour period, it has really worked well. And we feel like the first 10 to 15 days is the most crucial point of that lettuce in the summertime to surviving.

[00:08:16] So we find that putting shade cloth over those lettuces for the first, you know, two weeks or so really helps those greens get really established. And I also think, kind of backing up a little bit, if I can, I actually think we found feeding the lettuces outside of your greenhouse and putting outside in the direct sun, you know, those transplant lettuce, really helps the hardening off process.

[00:08:48] So you're basically�it's kind of the same process as you would do in the early spring where you want to get your tomato plants, you know, they're in your shell pack trays, and you want to get 'em outside to kind of help acclimate to the, you know, outdoor kind of cool weather. You're doing that with the lettuce greens in the summertime as well. So it just kinda helps get 'em acclimated to that really intense sunlight.

[00:09:17] Diego Footer: A couple things I wanna follow up on there. First, the shade cloth. How are you supporting it over the beds and what density, shade cloth they're using?

[00:09:25] Ray Tyler: We use 50% and there's a few ways, like, if you use little hoops, you can fasten it. Like if you're gonna use a little wire, those little wire hoops, you can fasten those on with a clothes pin. Or if you are using like this big, bigger half-inch EMT conduit hoops, Johnny�s sells these little half inch conduit clips that's for shade cloth. So that really works well.

[00:09:53] Diego Footer: And you only leave that on for the 10 days, 10 to 15 days of establishment?

[00:09:58] Ray Tyler: That's right. That's right. Because at least in our experience, what we have found, if you leave it on there any longer, that we find that the heads get really spindly, and they don't really fill up. to a really nice, solid head.

[00:10:13] You know, it's possible, which, you know, we haven't experiment with this yet. It's possible that you could downgrade to maybe a 20 or 30% shade cloth and maybe, you know, maybe you would have better luck. But you know, for us, it's worked just fine, just taking it off for the last two weeks of its growing life.

[00:10:35] Diego Footer: And thinking about your irrigation, doing it three times a day over the summer, how would that compare to early May or September, late September, when it's not as hot out? What would that look like? Just to give a point of comparison?

[00:10:49] Ray Tyler: Yeah. You know, maybe once every two, three days. It's definitely a lot different. You know, we also use landscape fabric just because this is what year two in trying to really get a handle on our weed pressure, and it's just the landscape fabric really helps with that. So ,we also use drip tape underneath that. So sometimes you can just get away with just the drip and you know, this spring, you know, we did both. We tried just overhead without the drip and that worked just fine, too.

[00:11:26] So, you know, it's just kind of whatever is your preference, but think early spring, fall overhead or drip is fine. And really just every 2, 3 days is, is fine.

[00:11:43] Diego Footer: Sorry to interrupt your episode, but it's a word from our sponsor, Paperpot Co. Say goodbye to sandbags forever with Kwik Hoops. Let's face it: poly-low tunnels in general are a pain in the butt.

[00:11:58] They're hard to set up. They require several people to set up, and you need all sorts of equipment like ropes and sandbags to secure the fabric. And even then, a strong wind comes by and often takes the fabric away with the wind. Well, you can say goodbye to all that hassle forever because Kwik Hoops solve that problem.

[00:12:20] They've been used in New Zealand by farmers for over the past 20 years, and they allow one person�just one person�to set up an entire bed, including hoops and fabrics in about 10 minutes by themselves, no sandbags or ropes required. So everything you hated about poly-low tunnels in the past, whether they were made from PVC or E M T, all those negatives are gone with Kwik Hoops.

[00:12:52] These have been tested in some of the windiest locations in New Zealand, being exposed to 70 plus mile per hour winds. They're made from high-tensile steel, and they should last you a decade or more. That's not an estimate. That's how long some of these systems have lasted in New Zealand, where they're actually made.

[00:13:12] Be aware of cheap imitations. Get the strongest, most innovative, efficient, time-saving poly-low tunnel on the market. Kwik Hoops available at paperpot.co. Or using the link below. Check them out and then get back into this episode on lettuce with Ray Tyler.

[00:13:36] In terms of establishment in the field, what's your procedure there? Say you're planting on a brand-new fresh bed, how would you treat that to get the greens to take in that heat?

[00:13:47] Ray Tyler: What we're doing is whenever we go to plant early morning, we wanna plant into a really saturated bed. And so we're doing that. And then as soon as we're done planting that bed of lettuce, you know, whether it be a salanova or head lettuce, you know, it's already well watered.

[00:14:08] Then we're installing the shade cloth on it, and then we're getting our overhead irrigation. And so, what'll happen is, you know, maybe we will go ahead and run that overhead maybe for 30 minutes just to kinda help water in the lettuce plants really well, and then it'll come on again later on that afternoon.

[00:14:31] We've experienced really good success with that procedure. Basically, it's just really watching, you know, for the first two weeks, just kind of seeing how the lettuces are faring. Just, is it getting too much water? Is it not water enough? You know, there'll be some days where it is just pushing a hundred, very humid, very just bright sun.

[00:14:53] And sometimes, we'll add maybe a short water there, and then some days, it's like, okay, they're getting too soggy. We're starting to see some, you know, leaves are dying just cause it's just too wet, and we'll back it off. So really you just gotta really watch it for the first two weeks. And then after that two weeks, you know, it's almost impossible to kill the lettuces after that.

[00:15:18] Diego Footer: Thinking on the flip side of that or the opposite end of all this, when it comes time to harvest, how are you harvesting this time of year when it's hot and you wanna make sure that the product now you've put all this effort into getting established and growing in the heat stays sellable and in good condition, so it ultimately makes it to the customer?

[00:15:38] Ray Tyler: And that's really important to touch on. So for us, all lettuce must be harvested out of the field by 8:00 AM. And what we have found is that, you know, for us, it's not just the way the lettuce looks, but just in the early mornings, we found that the lettuce, the salanova and head lettuce are just very dense. They're very crisp.

[00:16:06] So when you harvest at that really crisp, fresh stage, it's much, much easier to maintain that that freshness. You know, basically from the time you process it, long as it goes right to the cooler, to the time it gets into your restaurant or grocery store or farmer's markets, you know, wherever that's going.

[00:16:27] We've had folks tell us that that lettuce has lasted three weeks in the summertime, and we've also have harvested head lettuce before in the afternoon when it's wilted and we think, oh, you know, we'll just put it in really cold water, and it'll kind of come back to life. And it does that. But we just feel like the quality, the nutrients are just not there. And so it just doesn't last near as long.

[00:16:55] And we've noticed, like, if we harvest lettuce early mornings on Friday, and it goes to the Saturday market, that it'll just look great at the farmer's market, you know, kind of out in the basket. But if you are taking a lettuce that was harvested in the afternoon, we feel like it just does not last near as long on the farmer's market table.

[00:17:19] So I definitely feel like you can do everything right, you know, you can get your lettuce germination, you know, put 'em in the walk-in cooler for 48 hours. You can get that all right. You can get your hardening off right, your bed right. You can have a beautiful head of lettuce, but if you harvest that in the afternoon, you're gonna have a really tough time getting that lettuce to last long.

[00:17:49] And to whatever restaurant, grocery store that you wanted to go into. You know, you not only wanna have a product that looks good, but it needs to last as long as possible.

[00:18:01] Diego Footer: So you're cutting, going into the walk-in. When do you time that relative to when you'd wash it and pack it? Is it same day? Do you do it the day before? Do you have a limit on how much you wanna cut it prior to when it would go into packing? And if you do introduce water outside of the wash, when is that happening or is it only in the first wash?

[00:18:26] Ray Tyler: Most of the time, we're harvesting lettuce the day before we wash. Because basically every day, we need to be harvesting. So if we know we have a big harvest day�so, I'll kind of give you a practical example. Let's just say Friday's gonna be a big�that's our big wash harvest day for the markets. And then�but we know we have a lot of head lettuce to do, a lot of salad mix and a lot of other things.

[00:18:54] Say we have, you know, a bunch of collards and kale that needs to be outta the field, too, by eight, then we will harvest, you know, 200 head of head lettuce on Thursday morning. So as long as that target is before eight or so, that goes right at the walk-in cooler. And that's great. And then the next day, if that needs to get washed, then we can do that in our processing shed.

[00:19:20] And our processing shed has an AC unit in there. So it stays, you know, within the 70-degree range. So where we're washing and packing stays cool as well. So, you know, once it comes outta the cooler, it may be, you know, exposed, it goes into a wash tub, it gets drip dried, or maybe it gets spun, and that whole process is relatively cool. And then as soon as that's done, it gets put back in the tote and right back into the walking cooler. So it's always staying cold.

[00:19:52] Diego Footer: And hearing this, I'm thinking your preferred variety is salanova. Do you have any comments on varieties that you really like or that just haven't worked well for you? Or is it just salanova?

[00:20:04] Ray Tyler: I mean, really in the past, our main lettuce was head lettuce, and so salanova for us hasn't really been the greatest performer in the summertime. You know, we will grow it for our really high-end clients who are willing to pay the money for it. But since we're getting literally half the yield, we're not completely sold, or maybe it's just we haven't completely found what really works for us in the south, but our favorite is, like Cherokee, and Muir head lettuce� cause it just holds so well on the field.

[00:20:41] It's very, very dense. It looks beautiful in August when it is just roasting, and the ground is just on fire. So for us, those two varieties are really, really dependable. And that's paid our bills in August. Salanova is okay, but what it does for us is it keeps our clients.

[00:21:09] So everybody in the south has lettuce and salad mix in October, November, December, and the same in April, May, early June, but they don't have it in the dead of summer or the dead of winter. So we do it on those two times just because it just keeps our foot�or, you know, basically, our clients.

[00:21:34] So what we have found is that, you know, salad mix does well. So what we've been doing recently is we've been actually mixing salad mix with the salanova. �Cause the salad mix is a much cheaper seed, and we actually almost get the same yield from the salad mix as we do salanova. It also helps because the salad mix that we're using has more of that buttery texture, which I think some of our, you know, chefs like, so, you know, in the fall, winter, and spring, you can use the red and green butter for that nice, buttery.

[00:22:15] But in the summertime, I have not figured out how to grow without it just bolting too fast. So for us, we've just substituted an actual salad mix, which is a much cheaper seed. We're getting the same yield per bed as we are the salanova in the summertime. And so that's what we're kind of turning�that's basically what we've changed our lettuce production, too. So far, it's working.

[00:22:41] We've switched to the Paperpot, so we're pretty excited to see how that's gonna work out as well this summer. We're always experimenting with different lettuce varieties and different methods to really try to find the best way to have greens all summer long.

[00:23:03] �Cause if a small farm in the south can really have summer salad, you can really, really get your foot in your local food economy door with being the salad king, you know? And it can really help pay the bills at a time of year that really cash can be hard to come by cause it's just so hot.

[00:23:30] Diego Footer: Well, thinking of that, where do you think you are on that pathway, that yellow brick road to be in the salad king? Are you partially there, are you still trying to figure it out?

[00:23:41] Ray Tyler: Well, I think it depends who you ask. So if you ask me, I would say, I'm not completely satisfied with where we're at. I think we have a long ways to go. If you were to ask all the farmers and restaurants in the area, they would all say that I've got it down. But I think that's just because they see that, you know, we're in all these restaurants, and we're in grocery stores year-round. In my book, I think we have a ways to go. We definitely have the reputation in the Midsouth for being the salad farm, which I think is great.

[00:24:14] We've definitely been working for that, but there's still a ways to go. You know, as in, like this past last week, I think we had a little dip in our yield, which I should have, you know, double planted to help�I mean, I knew it was coming. I just thought it was gonna be a little bit later, but, you know, I kind of missed it by about two weeks.

[00:24:41] So yeah, just kind of those things of learning of the different varieties and how they're working and yes. You know, just, it really keeps you on your toes. But we're having a great time. We're having a great time, and it's a goal that we want to have salad 52 weeks a year as much as our local clients will want. We wanna supply just as much as people will buy, so that's definitely the end goal that I have.

[00:25:17] Diego Footer: Thanks for listening to today's episode. For any tools and supplies referenced in this episode, please visit the show description below. There, you'll also find a link to Ray's book, the Farmer's Guide to Growing Organic Lettuce, as well as a signup link for Ray�s lettuce masterclass. Those are two additional ways to go even deeper into growing lettuce better on your farm.

[00:25:40] If you enjoyed this episode, can you do me a favor and share it with a friend? Odds are, if you like the show, they'll like it too, so if it's helped you in any way, please take some time to share the show with a friend. That's all for this one. Thanks for listening. Until next time, be nice. Be thankful, and do the work.

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