The Wide World of Lettuce
by National Gardening Association Editors
"Lettuce" is synonymous with "salad" for people all over the world. It's by far the world's most popular salad plant and has been cultivated for more than 2,000 years. Ancient records note that lettuce was served at the royal table of Persian kings as early as 550 B.C. And today you rarely see a home garden without some kind of lettuce growing in it.
The uninitiated may think lettuce is lettuce. Not so! There's a wonderful diversity of varieties. Each has a distinct flavor, texture and color, so you can have remarkably different salads just by varying the lettuces you use. Here's a rundown of what you can expect in the lettuce department:
Head, or crisphead lettuces produce heads of tightly wrapped crisp leaves. 'Great Lakes', 'Iceberg' and 'Ithaca' are good choices for home gardeners. Those in the South may want to try varieties better adapted to hot weather, such as 'Summertime' and 'Continuity'. 'Tom Thumb' is a good miniature iceberg type, growing only to the size of a tennis ball.
Butterhead or loosehead plants form a head, but the leaves don't wrap themselves tightly together. 'Buttercrunch' is a good variety for home gardeners. Its taste and crispness are terrific. The leaves are crunchier than leaf lettuce. The outer leaves of the head are dark green, and the inner leaves are lighter-colored. 'Dark Green Boston' and 'Bibb' are two other tasty and popular loosehead varieties. You can harvest some loosehead plants before they form heads for an early harvest of delicate leaves. A second crop will follow. To harvest, simply take a knife and cut the entire plant off about one inch above the ground.
Leaf lettuce doesn't form a head at all - it grows up and out. It's very easy to plant and will grow anywhere, almost anytime. Make regular plantings every few weeks over the entire season, starting as soon as you can work the soil in the spring. That way you always have lettuce that is young and fresh. Never give the crop time to get old, tough and bitter - harvest at the peak of freshness and taste. Harvest leaf lettuces by picking off the large outer leaves or cutting plant off an inch above the ground and letting it grow back. 'Black-Seeded Simpson' is an old favorite, and one of the earliest leaf lettuces you can grow. 'Simpson Elite' is a new improved version. 'Oak Leaf' has thin, tender leaves and takes heat well; 'Red Salad Bowl' is a red-tinged oakleaf. 'Green Ice' has crinkly leaves and is one of the slowest to go to seed. Be sure to include some 'Red Sails' or 'Four Seasons' lettuce, too. They add great color and taste to a salad, and looks beautiful in the garden.
Cos or romaine lettuce always has a spot in the garden. Plant the seeds very early like other varieties, but plant them a little thicker because Romaine lettuce doesn't germinate as well as other kinds of lettuce. The plants produce a tall head - 10 inches or more - of dark green leaves that close up firmly. The tight, inner leaves are especially tasty in tossed salads because they often have a pleasant, mild taste. Romaine lettuce takes 70 to 80 days to form a full-grown head. You can harvest it earlier, of course, just like loosehead lettuce. Cut it before it forms a head, and it will come back to give you an additional harvest. 'Paris Island' cos is a vigorous, disease-resistant variety with dark green leaves; 'Rosalita' is a dark red-leafed cos with good heat tolerance. 'Rouge d'Hiver' is an early-maturing European red heirloom. 'Winter Density' will withstand a light frost.
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