As the seed catalogs arrive, and decisions need to be made for ordering, it’s wise to look back at the previous seasons to evaluate the varieties grown. There are hundreds of varieties of lettuce available, and it’s always hard to limit the choices but retaining the best performers, and eliminating those that just didn’t “wow” us makes it a bit easier. Thanks to our cool, generally wet spring and early summer, the 2019 potager produced some of the best lettuces I’ve ever grown! Shown in the photo is “Victoria,” a gorgeous chartreuse butterhead type that really highlights why this type is called “butter head.” The heavy 10-12″ across heads are extremely tender and tasty, and ready to harvest only 45 days after transplanting. The large outer leaves need not be discarded because they are just too lovely, and are perfect for wraps. The seed was from Territorial, and germinated very well. The first planting was started indoors and moved into the potager beds as soon as danger of hard freeze was past. Since they were hardened off carefully, a little frost wouldn’t hurt, but a hard freeze would set them back, or might actually do them in. At the same time, I direct seeded a succession planting. When those germinated and had four leaves, I used a pencil to carefully lift out extra seedlings and transplanted them to other beds. Since the heads get so large, they do need room. However, they are so gorgeous I tucked some into the flower borders (where the bunnies celebrated their good fortune, so I will keep them in the potager from now on!) and looked fabulous (briefly until devoured!)
However, my husband prefers lettuce with crunch rather than tender. He wants it crispy, so Romaine types are more to his liking. This pretty red one is “Intred,” a burgundy-red form of our favorite “Little Gem” lettuce. Since there is generally just the two of us, this smaller 8″ tall head is usually just the right amount. The heads are compact, tightly packed, and slow to bolt, with excellent flavor. As you can see in the picture, since they stay upright, seedlings can be tucked between rows of onions or garlic in a tight spacing because they will be harvested before their neighbors widen. If space is limited, these are a great choice, and alternated with the green “Little Gem” make a stunning pattern. Both are pretty edgers for spring beds, followed by pretty annuals once the lettuces are harvested.
Planted at the same time as “Victoria,” this burgundy butterhead is ready soon afterwards, providing a continual harvest since it takes 65 days to mature. But, it’s worth the wait, and provides glorious color the entire time it’s growing. Reaching 12″ across and 8″ tall, it does require some space, but the sweet flavor and good texture is worthy.
“Black Seeded Simpson” has been around for over 150 years, and it’s still a favorite, a must-have in my garden. This heirloom, open-pollinated variety is a loose-leaf type, meaning it doesn’t form a head. Loose-leafs also withstand frost/freeze better than most other types. I mix a pinch of seeds with a handful of potting soil and sprinkle it lightly on the snow in February, especially over tulip bulbs. The seeds germinate just as soon as the weather improves, long before the soil can be worked, even in my raised beds. When the tulips are done blooming, the rising stalks of Black Seeded Simpson camouflage the fading foliage. The lower leaves can be harvested as soon as they are large enough. I always let a few plants toward the back remain to set seed, partly because volunteer seedlings are always most welcome, and partly because the birds love them. They will eventually become a 3′ tall tower, but leaves retain that pretty bright chartreuse-green color and ruffly-edges, and can still be harvested until they turn bitter. Once the seeds have dropped, I pull the stalk, and am rewarded with a new set of seedlings as soon as the weather begins to cool in autumn. These can be harvested until a killing freeze occurs (or with a little protection, well into the winter!) Black Seeded Simpson is always the first and last lettuce harvested in my potager!
So, these are the four must-haves for the upcoming season. Instead of ordering additional lettuces, I’ve vowed to use up old seed from past years. Since there are already 11 different packets in my seed box, the potager will still have plenty of variety!