Each year, when spring creeps in and Jack Frost slowly releases his icy grip, one of the first cold tolerant vegetables that can be sown is lettuce. It is easily planted, quick growing and can be harvested gradually or all at once, to meet the grower’s needs. All of these properties make lettuce a great choice for the novice gardener.
I find that there are three primary qualities upon which one’s choice of lettuce may be based; texture, flavor and growth habit. For example, if you are looking for lettuce with a nice crunch then you’ll likely gravitate toward Romaine varieties. On the contrary, if you want some delicate greens to mix with berries and nuts for a sweet summer salad, you will be drawn to leaf options. While you can pick at all varieties and harvest a single leaf at a time to create flavorful combinations in a single bowl, not all cultivars develop a regimented head for the consumer that prefers a more uniform salad. This “head of lettuce” growth habit may therefore be a priority for some, but not others. Additionally, growth habit determines spacing requirements with vertically directed heads needing less room than bulbous, sprawling varieties. As far as flavor is concerned, there are sweet options and peppery ones, mild choices and varieties with robust flavor.
Who would have guessed that growing something as seemingly simple as lettuce could require so much decision making!? If you’re anything like myself you probably just bought seeds for something that looked tasty or sounded familiar and put little to no thought into growth habit or how you intended to use said greens. Live and learn, am I right??
My husband is more fond of crunchy salads so I find myself growing Romaine cultivars more than anything else. Last year I grew White Paris (above) and this year I have gone with a smaller heirloom variety known as Little Gem, which is said to be a cross between Romaine and leaf. The idea is that this variety offers the crunch of Romaine with more flavor. While this is my first year with Little Gem, my mother and step-father are seasoned veterans and have found that heads grow back quickly after harvesting (if you leave the roots) and, according to my mother, “each little head is the perfect size for a small salad.” Featured below is an early photo of their Little Gem sown between rows of radishes as well as a close-up of one of my immature heads.
In addition to Little Gem, I am currently growing Butterhead and Bronze mignonette lettuces. (photos below) While these varieties do form heads they have more of a broad, expansive growth habit and therefore take up more room. The beauty of lettuce is that it can be harvested at any time, so if you find that your heads are too crowded you can thin them out without wasting precious greens — put them to use in the kitchen!
Since my experience with leaf varieties is limited, I decided to consult my fellow gardener and former Millennial Green Thumb feature, Amee Lewis. She and her husband grow both Romaine and loose leaf cultivars but she has expressed a preference for Burpee’s Loose Leaf Blend for the very reason mentioned above — she likes to have a variety of greens present in her salads and this blend is a one-stop shop. Check out her photos below.
While this combination of leaf lettuces can reach 15 inches in height, its spread is only 6 inches making it a great choice if you’re working with limited garden space. Have a container garden? Compact options like this blend are just what the doctor ordered, but as you can see in the photos they do just fine in a nice tilled plot too.
- In or out? Lettuce can be sown directly outside in early spring or seeds can be started indoors to get a head start. Either way, sowing seeds densely is encouraged followed by thinning to the suggested spacing when plants are 2-3 inches tall.
- Harvest options. One harvest? Pull the roots. Multiple harvests for weeks of delicious salads? Cut only the greens, leaving the root system in the soil. Give them plenty of water and they will grow more greens.
- Keep it cool. Lettuce prefers cool temperatures and lots of water. Most varieties do not tolerate heat stress and when temperatures peak in the summer months they are prone to bolting (aka producing flowers and becoming bitter in taste) so it is best to plant early in the spring or when autumn is approaching.
- Nestled in. Lettuce is a suitable companion for most other fruits and vegetables and is therefore a great choice for planting in the otherwise wasted space between taller plants like tomatoes and peppers. Not only will you be maximizing your soil’s potential but the lettuce will grow well in the cooler, lightly shaded environment provided by the neighboring crops.
- Let them breath. I know it will be tempting to leave your plants densely sown, no one likes to sacrifice precious seedlings. That being said, damp dense foliage is the perfect habitat for pests like slugs, aphids and fungi. Thinning to allow sufficient airflow helps to reduce this issue and encourages more robust growth.
If you have any varieties that you love, please feel free to share suggestions in the comments below. I personally am always open to trying new cultivars and I’m sure that any new gardeners who may be reading this would also appreciate more ideas. Cheers, friends!