Freshness, variety make it a home-garden champ
Ah, lettuce—soul of spring, jewel of the summer garden and heart of the salad bowl. Though summer is upon us now, lettuces in a variety of pleasing shapes and colors—some green or bronze, some with leaves blushed pink and red, still others a deep crimson—can still, with a little attention, be brought to table right through to autumn.
Lettuce has an interesting past. Ancient Egyptians worshipped it as a phallic symbol (likely the upright Romaine or Cos, which was, much later, introduced to France from Italy by none other than Rabelais, himself ).
These days, gardeners think of lettuce along more botanical lines, dividing the species into four primary groups, of which dozens and dozens of varieties are available to the home gardener, the number growing each year. Johnny’s Selected Seeds of Albion, Maine, offers no fewer than 13 pages of options for commercial and home growers alike:
Leaf lettuces form loose rosettes rather than heads and when cut young all varieties will regrow for at least one additional cutting. Leaf lettuces can also be sown thickly for cutting and thinning when very young, hence the baby lettuces popular in markets. (Crisp head types come in a number of varieties, of both the tighthead (iceberg) and loose-head forms known as summer crisp types. Butterhead (Boston and Bibb) form loose heads of green or solid red, or red heads with beautifully contrasting green centers. Leaves are deeply folded with a sweet, buttery flavor. Seeds are available for full-size and mini heads, and even a baby leaf variety called Deer Tongue, from Johnny’s. Romaine or Cos types are tall plants with ribbed leaves and smooth or ruffled tips. Romaine comes in green, red blush, deep red with bronze veins, and dark reddish purple. Mini heads are available too, and most varieties can be cut for baby leaf salads. Full-sized heads mature at a height of about 8–12 inches, and weigh about a pound, sometimes more. The tops of leaves are tender and nutty in flavor, while lower leaves have crispy, juicy ribs. Lettuce and mesclun mixes combine seeds of several varieties of greens to create a salad blend of beautifully varying colors, textures and flavors. Some mixes are entirely of lettuce; others add arugula, mustard and a mélange of Asian greens. You can blend mixes of the greens you love best. Sow seed fairly thickly in wide rows, and begin cutting for the table when seedlings are two to three inches tall, leaving an inch of base plant to regrow for cropping a couple of weeks later.
KEEP IT COMING
With a little planning you can avoid the feast-or-famine syndrome in which you are at first inundated by too much lettuce and then frustrated by too little. Even with very limited space, you can keep tender lettuces coming all season. Incorporate plenty of compost into the soil, an all-purpose organic fertilizer and a sprinkling of either garden lime or wood ashes for sweetness. Starting as early in the season as you can, sow your first crop, and follow on with a new planting every two weeks or so. You can also buy many varieties of young lettuce plants in six-packs at nurseries and farmers markets, and pop them right into prepared ground.
When starting seeds in summer, keep the ground constantly moist and shaded with a row cover like Reemay or even an old bed sheet tented a few inches above the soil surface (lettuce seed is reluctant to germinate in soil warmer than 75° F.). If you have a garage or cool room, you can start seeds indoors and set seedlings out in the garden when they’ve put on a couple sets of true leaves.
Keep weeds out of the lettuce patch, the moisture steady and the rows thinned. Make a meal of the seedlings you remove; they’re tender and delicious. When head lettuces start to put on some size, give them a weekly watering of compost or manure tea.
This article was edited from The Salad Lover’s Garden (Doubleday) by Sam Bittman.
SAM BITTMAN is co-founder of bittmanBOYS Edible Gardens and author of several books on gardening, including Seeds: the Ultimate Guide to Growing Vegetables, Herbs & Flowers (Bantam) and The Salad Lover’s Garden (Doubleday). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.