If you’ve got room for just one crop in the garden, make it leafy and green. Lettuces are quick and easy to grow and bring a variety of color and flavor to the garden and plate.
On the menu of varieties, you’ll find hearting types that form dense heads of leaves that you pick all at once, as well as loose-leaf lettuces that form an open rosette and can be picked leaf by leaf as you need them.‘Iceberg’ is the hero of the hearting lettuces with crisp, succulent green leaves with a mild flavor and juicy texture that is the star in an Oriental salad cup or classic prawn cocktail.
It’s also delicious shredded into salads and sandwiches. Among the named varieties, ‘Great Lakes’ is a standout form with crisp, crunchy, tender, light-green leaves and large solid hearts.
Grow loose-leaf lettuces and you’ll enjoy a continuous supply of greens that can be picked on demand. They’re fast growing and quick to crop with most varieties ready to harvest in just six weeks. Smaller leaves can be picked even earlier. Plant a new punnet of seedlings every few weeks and you’ll have a salad bar at your fingertips.
I enjoy the light, delicate texture of butter-head lettuces such as the aptly named ‘Tennis Ball’, an heirloom variety with petite loose heads and soft pale-green leaves. It’s said to be Thomas Jeﬀerson’s favorite variety, grown in the garden of his Monticello estate. ‘Freckles Bunte’ is another striking butter-head type with crinkled green foliage that’s speckled with red patches.
Lettuce ‘Royal Oakleaf’ has a long history in the garden and kitchen, dating back to 1771, with tender, sweet, deeply lobed green leaves and thick midribs. It stands up to summer heat and holds on to its flavor and texture well. Pick the leaves as needed to extend the harvest.
The lettuce varieties with red or burgundy foliage are particularly decorative and a real standout in the salad bowl and patch. Plant them alongside beautiful lime-colored lettuces such as ‘Gold Rush’ for wonderful contrast.
‘Rouge d’Hiver’, which means “red of winter” in French, is a pretty choice with attractive red-brown leaves that fade to green close to the heart. As the name suggests, it grows beautifully through the winter, but it shows promise as a good summer variety, too.
‘Red Velvet’ takes center stage in the kitchen garden with rich maroon-colored foliage, or you might like to grow Lettuce ‘Flame’ with fiery leaves and a delicate buttery texture.
The Italian Lollo varieties of lettuce are frilly and flamboyant with rufed leaves in shades of green, pink and red, which bring a touch of wow factor to a garden-fresh salad. ‘Lollo Rossa Darkness’ is particularly attractive with frilly leaves that are heavily tinged red.
If you’re after a good addition to a classic Caesar salad, look no further than ‘Parris Island Cos’ with crisp upright leaves that add real crunch to the bowl. It’s heat resistant and slow to bolt, with a lovely sweet flavor.Or, if space is tight, try growing ‘Little Gem’, a mini cos variety with crisp, juicy leaves. It’s the perfect choice for growing in a decorative container.
For something diﬀerent, you might like to give the heirloom variety ‘Amish Deer Tongue’ a try for its unique tongue-shaped leaves, which are tender and full of flavor. It’s unusual in that it can be used fresh in salads or cooked like spinach — and you can pick it for ages.
Lettuces can be grown from seed or seedlings and planted and harvested year-round in many areas.
In tropical zones, the growing season is shorter.
Lettuces enjoy growing in rich, well-drained soil, so prepare your beds well before planting. They are fast-growing, shallow-rooted plants, so keep the water up, apply mulch and give them a good liquid-feed every two weeks to sustain growth.
Sow seeds or plant seedlings every few weeks for a continuous supply. In hotter parts of the country, lettuces will benefit from afternoon shade, particularly through the warmer months, so try covering them with shade cloth in the hottest part of the day, or grow them in the shade of taller crops such as corn. It also pays to choose heat-tolerant varieties that are less likely to bolt to seed.
In smaller gardens, try growing lettuces among your flowers or to fill gaps around slower-growing vegetables. They are also wonderfully decorative in pots and window boxes.
Lettuces are quick to harvest and many varieties are ready to pick in just five to six weeks. Loose-leaf lettuces are “cut and come again” vegetables that can be picked leaf by leaf as you need them without harvesting the whole head. Cut hearting varieties at the base of the plant when the head is full, ripe and ready.