I have to admit that one of my favorite plants to grow is lettuce (Lactuca sativa). Not because it is easy, although it IS one of the easiest plants anyone can grow, or because it is tasty—although it certainly is, and so appreciated early in the season. That first harvest of tender green leaves is certainly something to celebrate! I love to grow lettuce because it is so very pretty in the garden, and there are so many varieties to try! It seems every year there are new, exciting lettuces to test, and old favorites to enjoy again. (See the “What’s Growing” post for a list of this year’s selections for my potager.) I use chartreuse-leaved Black-seeded Simpson sprinkled in the potager’s interior borders to hide dying tulip foliage. I love using tidy rows of frilly “New Red Fire” to edge flower borders, especially where it is partially shaded so it is showy a long time. Unfortunately, the rabbits love for me to do just that, so it seldom looks as perfect as it does in my dreams. The contrasting varieties with red leaves, (“Pomegranate,” “Gabriella,” or “Red Romain”) green leaves or speckled leaves (“Freckles”) around other, plainer and slower growing plants in the potager make the garden showy at once. I love making patterns using the ruffly loose leaved-varieties next to the tightly balled, rounded leaf buttercrunches (“Tom Thumb” shown above, and “Garden Babies”), backed by a soldier-straight row of romaines. I even just love the names of some of the varieties. Who doesn’t want to grow some of the heirloom types named “Strawberry Cabbage Lettuce,” or “Merveille des Quatre Saisons,” “Bronze Arrowhead,” “Red Leprechaun,” “Webb’s Wonderful,” or “Rouge d’Hiver.” I just love growing lettuces!
Red Deer Tongue & New Red Fire
Lettuce probably takes its name from the Latin lactuca, or milky juice. This white liquid is most noticeable when the plant’s seed stalk is broken, but can also be observed when the older leaves of the plant are broken. There is lots of lore about lettuce. The Roman gourmet Apicius watered the lettuce in his garden with honey-based mead every evening so that it would taste like “green cheese cakes.” Old lore says that the lusty Frenchmen began their meals with meat and cheese, but ended it with mustard and lettuce to make them more virile.
Black Seeded Simpson
The looseleaf varieties are some of my favorites. Some of them are named because of their color. There’s “Australian Yellowleaf,” “Mascara,” and “Red Velvet.” Many of them are named because of the shape, such as “Deer tongue,” “Oakleaf, and “Bronze Arrowhead.” They can be grown as “cut and come again” crops or allowed to form large single “heads.” Most looseleaf types are not very heat-tolerant, so plant and eat them first.
The Bibb types came along later. Although many people assume Bibb lettuce got its name because the leaves are shaped like a baby’s bib that is not the case. Actually, amateur gardener John B. Bibb developed this variety by selection and hand-pollination in his backyard garden in Frankfort, Kentucky around 1850! (And, NO, I didn’t know him personally…I’m old, but not that old!) It has continued to be an American favorite, although over the decades many other buttercrunch lettuces, as the type is termed, have been developed. Breeders have continued to improve the original Bibb lettuce to get more heat tolerance. Today, even a miniature variety called “Tom Thumb” and a red-leafed one called “Susan’s Red Bibb” are available.
Even the Romaine types now come in Red, speckled, and red-tipped colors. I love the Romaines because they tolerate the heat a bit better than some of the looseleaf types. The leaves have a heavier texture that hold up well in salads.
Breeders have worked hard to extend the lettuce season for those of us with hard-hitting heat fairly early in the season. Now there’s “Heatwave,” and “Summerlong” to extend the lettuce season.
I doubt that few reading this post have never grown lettuce. But just in case, lettuce thrives in cool weather, so it is planted just as soon as the soil can be worked. It works very well wintered or planted very early in hotbeds and coldframes, and can be successfully grown in containers of all sizes. It plays well with others. Good, fertile, loose soil and adequate moisture guarantees that the crop will grow quickly, which produces the most tender and flavorful lettuce. By planting different varieties and doing successive sowings, any home gardener can have months of tasty salads and sandwich fixings.
My mother always pulled out lettuce as soon as it became too bitter or tough, to make room for another crop, such as beans or melons. But, recently I’ve begun leaving some lettuces to mature in the garden, especially the Black-Seeded Simpsons. They make frilly towers that make me smile, and if I am watchful, I can collect seeds to sow again in the cool weather of September for another autumn harvest.
I emphasize that I must be watchful, because I am not the only one that is interested in lettuce maturing. In many areas, the goldfinch is called the “Lettuce Bird” because the seed of that plant is one of its favorites. Allowing lettuce to bolt and produce seed is a good way to attract this bright yellow songster, also often called a “wild canary” into your yard.
So, I hope I have whetted your appetites, and set your gardening urges to flowing. If you have not already ordered (or you lucky people living in warmer areas that can already plant! Sigh of jealousy here…..) a wide variety of lettuces, do so now. You will be rewarded with both beauty and bounty for very small efforts. P.S. This is my “green” post for St. Patrick’s Day!