I admit it. I’ve been stuck in a rut for a while, ordering the same lettuce seeds year after year. There’s good reason for that, of course. Growing the varieties that have proven themselves as reliable and productive in the potager just makes good sense. So every year I grow the favorites, but I’ve been observing the lettuces more carefully, and taking a closer look at the harvest journal. I find myself wanting two things. First, a lettuce that can hold up to our summer heat and humidity without bolting so quickly and without getting tip burn (that’s turning brown on the outer edges.) Secondly, a lettuce that can withstand cold temperatures longer, and stay nice in the coldframes to really extend the lettuce season. It didn’t take much research to discover that there are indeed such crops, so I’ve added some new characters to the plot! (Pun intended.)
Every year I grow the favorite heirloom “Black Seeded Simpson” that self-seeds in the potager’s interior border and hides the fading tulip foliage there. I remember it growing in my grandmother’s garden and it’s the only kind my mother plants. “Black Seeded Simpson” is a looseleaf type which is the best for planting in the earliest days of spring. They can be grown as “cut and come again”, or thinned and allowed to form loose “heads,” but they aren’t really heads. I think of them more as a loose bouquet. There are dozens of different looseleaf varieties in various colors, and leaf shapes (ruffled, deer tongue, oak leaf) and generally take 45-50 days from seed. However, they are not very good for growing in hot weather. As much as I love BSS, I have to admit that it does get bitter and a bit tough as it ages, although as soon as that begins to happen we make “wilted lettuce” and add a bit of onion to counteract the bitterness, until the leaves are just too tough. So this year, I’m giving another heirloom looseleaf called “Cracoviensis” (Pinetree Seeds) a try. Why did I pick it? Well, it’s a French heirloom and every potager needs a few authentic French inclusions. And, it has purplish tips and tender leaves, but it is famous for being a “two-crop” veggie in that the leaves are used when tender, but as the plant ages and leaves begin to get more tough, it is allowed to continue to grow. Just before the seed head emerges, the lettuce is cut off at the base, leaves removed, stems are peeled to become a crunchy celery/asparagus vegetable called “Celtuce.” I’m eager to give that a try!
A more recent crop in the potager that has become a favorite, “Victoria” is a voluptuous, large butterhead with the most tender light green leaves of any lettuce I’ve ever grown. Usually by the time the looseleafs are fading, the Butterheads are coming on strong, with their buttery, tender flavor that inspired their name. Most Butterheads take about 50 days from seeding. I also love “Alkindus,” (photo #2) a deep burgundy, tender butterhead to add a bit of color to salads.
This year I’m adding “Marvel of the Four Season” or “Merveille de Quatre Saisons” as well. It has a Bibb type leaf, and the Bibbs are known to tolerate heat a bit better than some others. Interestingly, some catalogs list “Marvel” as a butterhead, some as a bibb, and some as a Crisphead! I’m eager to see how it performs and plan to plant some every two weeks throughout the growing season just to see what happens.
“Little Gem” (top photo) became a favorite when our family decreased to two, not only for its size which is perfect for a serving or two, but also its crunchy texture, dense heads, and good flavor. I’ve grown lots of other Romaines, but “Little Gem” is my go-to. Many of the others are excellent, but just get too large and I end up throwing half the head in the compost. I’ve also grown “Tom Thumb,” but it’s just a little too small. Call me “Goldilocks”….I want it just right! Planted in the shade of crops on a trellis, it’s quick growth isn’t as harmed by hot weather as some other lettuces. Just be sure to keep it moist.
That brings us to the Crispheads, the most familiar of which is the common “Iceburg” found in most groceries. I have to admit I’ve never really grown Crispheads but this year I’m giving one a try, mainly because D keeps asking why I don’t grow “real lettuce” and because it is supposed to do okay in hotter weather, provided it has sufficient moisture. Two that were suggested as holding up to heat best were “Summertime” and “Two Star.” By the time I decided to add a crisphead to the potager cast, I was down to my very last seed order, vowing not to pay shipping costs from yet another company. I ordered “Summertime,” but it was already sold out, so I’m getting one called “New York 12,” (E&R seeds) said to be a large, sure-heading, cabbage-solid head that is resistant to tip burn and holds up well to heat. Takes 60-90 days depending upon when sown. I’m not holding my breath on this one, but I’ll do my best to make it happy.
The Batavia lettuces are reputed to be the hardiest for cold weather. Those suggested most were “Arctic King,” “Winter Marvel,” “Winter Density,” “Brune d’Hiver,” and “Rouge de Hiver.” I’m trying “Winter Density,” “Rouge de Hiver,” (both from E & R) “Blush Batavian,” and “Webb’s Wonderful” (Renee’s). I’ll be planting them in late September so they’ll have time to get established before really cold weather comes, under a berry box with plastic covering. It will be fun to see which ones last longest as the winter progresses.
So that outlines my attempt to smooth out the gaps and extend the lettuce production in the potager this year. I’ll still be using up some old seed of this and that tucked here and there in the interior border just for color and texture, but the “main” crop lettuces will be those mentioned here. Needless to say, the sowings will be in very small batches and often, with . Watch for reports and evaluations as the season progresses.