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Lettuce
(Lactuca sativa sp.)


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Cultivars

Even in winter, but of course especially in summer, a good salad is a treat for body and soul. And, while specialty salads--from a fresh sliced tomato with a little chive, parsley, olive oil, and vinegar to a beet-and-walnut salad--are many and pleasing, lettuce remains the bedrock of the salad-lover's crops. But there are lettuces and there are lettuces . . . .


Lettuce Types

There are a myriad of lettuce types, differing one from another in ways large and small. The most useful high-level classification is this:

Within each broad type there are numerous variants, but we like to think of each as being divided into two sub-classes: "green" and "red"--where "red" rarely means more than purple-tinged or bronze (as with the "red" Sierra Batavian pictured above).


Choosing Cultivars

Summer Varieties

With some moderate care in the handling of our growing area--as described farther down this page--one should be able to grow lettuce all the year round. Lettuce is a cool-weather crop to begin with, and is pretty cold-hardy. While it certainly can't grow out in the snow, only modest aid should be needed to keep it going. More difficult is summer growing, as lettuces notoriously bolt (go to seed) very quickly in hot weather. The answer there is (we hope and believe) modest protection, such as partial shading, but first and foremost careful selection of cultivars known to be heat-resistant.

A great help here are the results from the Colorado State University's Lettuce Bolting Resistance Project. We don't have to rely on seedmen's claims or individual anecdotal accounts: we have careful, methodic trial results available.

Regrettably, not all the cultivars their results point at remain readily available to home gardeners, but fortunately there are either clear successors or broadly applicable results, so we are satisfied with the list we have arrived at. It's a great shame that the former outstanding lettuces home-garden seedsman, A Cook's Garden, was sold by the Ogdens and is no longer anything special for lettuce and other salad-makings seeds; but Johnny's, in Maine, has evolved into a pretty good replacement, and many of our selections are unique to that seedsman. (We don't normally discuss sources on these pages, reserving that for our Seed Sources page, but here one cannot escape the subject.)

Broadly speaking, the Batavians are the undisputed kings of heat resistance, far ahead of all other types; runners up are the butterhead types. In summer (or really warm parts of spring and autumn), it seems just folly to try growing any other varieties; indeed, in the peak-heat days, even butterheads are probably best avoided. (A ways back are the romaines; leafy types don't do well; and heading lettuces are notoriously intolerant of really hot summer conditions--besides, we already know that they are scarcely worth the home gardener's putting her or himself out for.)

The best Batavian types for summer uses are green Nevada (widely available) and red Magenta, an improved selection of the classic Sierra (Magenta is sufficiently available). For butterhead types, the best green is surely the Israeli-bred Ben Shemen (now available, so far as we know, only from Bountiful Gardens); the red type Fireball has apparently disappeared from the market, and we are unsure what might make a good substitute (or you could just do with green, especially since you may not be able to manage butterheads at all).

For the stubborn, who want to see if they can defy the odds, the best summer Romaine types are probably green Jericho (sufficiently available) and the red Cimmaron--also listed as Cimmarron (widely available). Looseleafs and heading types are wasted effort in heat.


Winter Varieties

Though seed houses make much of certain "cold-hardy" winter lettuces, in truth all lettuces are, by nature, fairly cold-hardy. Rather than shop for especially cold-hardy types (and thus have to have two sets of lettuce seeds, one for hot and one for cold), it makes more sense to try to ameliorate winter growing conditions, something we discuss a bit farther on. Curiously, Batavians, so good in heat, are also pretty resistant to frost, as to some extent are butterheads--so one needn't look for special types of those other than the ones discussed above under "Summer".

If your fancy for lettuce is insufficiently satisfied by Batavians, butterheads, and Romaines, you might as well pick whatever green and red looseleafs you feel good about (we suspect it's more a matter of appearance than anything else--we'd pay cash money to see someone reliably tell cut-up lettuce types apart in a blindfold three-corner taste test). And if you want a heading type, feel fancy-free there, too. For what it's worth, the British newspaper the Daily Telegraph rated looseleaf type Black-Seeded Simpson the best flavored--actually "best-flavoured"--lettuce in the UK.) In 2008, the Master Gardeners of Santa Clara County (California), a large, active group that often does vegetable trials, did a taste test of red looseleaf lettuces and selected Flame and Cardinale as tied for first, with Sunset and Bronze Arrow tied for second. Inquiring minds wanted to know, and now they do. Oh, and also in the Telegraph was a reference to Reine de Glace as "the best of the Iceberg types".


The Growing Area

In spring and fall, lettuces can be grown outdoors with no special considerations. But if we are to succeed in the cold of winter and the heat of summer, we need to take some measures.

Winter

As we said above, lettuces are by nature cool-weather crops--they supposedly can withstand air temperatures down to perhaps as low as 20° F., so in a region where the average coldest overnight low is 17° F. (though we ourselves are in a "frost pocket" and can easily get down to zero or below), we don't necessarily need measures so drastic as an actual greenhouse. There are all sorts of "tunnel" and "hoop" systems, of varying degrees of complexity and sophistication (and cost), or you can fake it up on your own. Fortunately, lettuces grow pretty close to the ground, so plant height is not an issue. Another helpful trick is to place transparent quart (or liter nowadays) soda bottles filled with water in among the plants; those will heat up in the sunny day and release the heat at night (a poor man's version of Walls o' Water, plus it doesn't surround the plant).


Summer

To mitigate the warmth, the simplest thing is to provide some shade. A crude way is simple latticed slats set up on the south, east, and west ends of your greens-growing bed. Or you can get fancier by putting up (in the same places) sunshade fabric, of the sort used on house outsides over windows in the summer; or perhaps plastic window-screen roll (fairly inexpensive) would work. If you get relentless sun, make the east and west end coverings solid (that assumes a bed laid out with its long axis easy-west).


Planting

Timing

We will take it as an assumption that by the means described above, we in this climate can be growing lettuces throughout the year. To simplify matters, we will also assume that each lettuce will be taken as a whole when ready, though in reality some are "cut and come agin" types from which we take leaves without pulling the whole plant; the idea is just to get a grasp on numbers.

Let's say a typical lettuce spends 6 weeks outdoors in the lettuce bed after, say, two weeks indoors in a pot; that's about 8 weeks total growing time. From here on, the calculation is custom, depending on how often you need another head of lettuce. Just to make an example, suppose you think to yourself "oh, I guess one or two heads a week"; that translates to roughly another head every four days. Your own household needs might be anything from a new head every day to a head every eighth day--only you can say. But to continue the example: since the typical lettuce is ready in about eight weeks--56 days--from seeding, the number of heads you need space for is those 56 days divided by that 4 days, or--in this example--14. So a household that needs a new lettuce every fourth day would need space for 14 heads in its garden, and would be harvesting. and simultaneously starting new seed, every fourth day.

Obviously, that is all very rough: lettuces do not have the same growth period for all types (or, for that matter, for any two seeds out of the same packet), household needs are not exact and cna go up or down with the season or individual tastes, some lettuces are more productive than others, some are take-the-head while others are cut-and-come-again, and we might want different mixes in our salad bowls from time to time. All that said, though, we need some idea of how much, on average, we're likely to need, and that's the way to reckon it.


Starting Seedlings

Around here, we always start lettuces indoors as seedlings for transplanting. Sow into 1" seed cells or the like; use 2 or 3 seeds for each seedling wanted, then cull the weakest before they get too crowded. Don't let the seeds or seedlings get too warm: try to keep them below 65° in one way or another, and at all costs below 75°. Be sure to carefully harden off the seedlings: for 2 to 3 days before transplanting, reduce their water and the ambient temperature--that is especially important in the stressful days of low winter and of high summer.


The Bed

Lettuces are "greedy feeders", so be sure that the soil is good and rich for them. Something like 1 to 1½ pounds a square foot of compost or well-composted steer manure every year or two is a good idea (that's a layer about ½ to 1 inch thick). Though we hope to get lettuces (and other salad greens) growing year round, it's wise to move the lettuce bed at least annually, to minimize soil-disease risks--our own plan is two identical beds, each used for a year while the other is either fallow or used for some non-greens (and non-cole and non-solanaceae) catch crop.


Transplanting Out

Wait 3 to 4 weeks after sowing before transplanting out; 4 weeks is probably best in the high-stress summer and winter periods, whereas 3 weeks will likely be OK in spring and autumn.

When starting a new bed, space the new lettuces at about a foot; in the winter, though, you might make that more like 10 or even 9 inches, as they will grow more slowly and likely a little smaller (it's not a matter of saving space, but of trying to keep the mature plants' leaves just touching, as the proverbial "living mulch".)

After the bed is fully planted, whenever you remove a head of lettuce from the bed, just replace it with the largest seedling you have growing indoors. Plants are not factory-made: they grow at different paces, both as seedlings and as plants, so don't assume that the order in which you sow seed is necessarily the exact order in which you will transplant out (or that your transplanting order is the exact order in which you will harvest).


Growing

Keep them watered well and, perhaps above all, regularly. Irregular watering may be worse than scanty watering. Pick lettuce when it looks ready. Grow enough that you can afford to pick when the individual plants are of a modest size, lest you run the risk of having them bolt on you. Many leafy kinds can be harvested a few leaves at a time, which they will then grow back--what's called "cut and come again" harvesting.


More

Relevant Links

Besides any links presented above on this page, the following ought to be especially helpful.


Odds and Ends

Biology

All the lettuces are from the Asteraceae (formerly Compositae) family, the asters, which includes many edible greens and some edible roots.



History

There are today literally thousands of different cultivars of lettuce--all sprung from ancestral wild lettuces that grew (and still grow) in Northern Europe, Asia, North Africa, and even parts of North America. There is good evidence that some sorts of lettuces were being cultivated in Egypt as early as 4500 B.C. Certainly the Babylonians were cultivating it by 3,000 years ago, and the Chinese may have started growing it before them.

Herodotus tells us that lettuce was served on the tables of the Persian kings of the 6th century B.C. In the 5th and 4th centuries B.C., other great Greek writers described and praised its virtues. The Greeks called it tridax, the Persians kahn. The plant's modern "scientific" (Latin) name, Lactuca, is derived from the Latin root word lac, milk; our English word "lettuce" derives from the French laitue, also meaning milk. That, obviously, is because the plant has a heavy, milky juice. The juice, or sap, was long thought to have significant medical properties: Hippocrates mentions lettuce sap as a medicinal, supposed to induce sleepiness.

By the first century after Christ, Roman writers were describing a dozen distinctly different lettuce types, some of which were fairly common; it is known that lettuces much resembling present-day Romaine cultivars were then being grown. (It was popularly believed in the time of Augustus that he was cured of an illness by eating lettuce.)

As in the development of the cabbages, the primitive forms of lettuce were loose, leafy, and sometimes "stemmy" types; the looseheading and firm-heading forms occurred much later. Firm-heading forms had become well developed in Europe by the 16th century, but just when they were first developed is unknown. The oak-leaved and curled-leaf types, and various other colors now known, were all described in the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe.

Columbus evidently carried lettuce to the New World, for its culture was reported on Isabela Island (now called Crooked Island) in the Bahamas in 1494. It was common in Haiti in 1565. When it was introduced into South America is not known, but doubtless it was soon after the Europeans arrived; it was under cultivation in Brazil before 1650.

Lettuces are today used almost exclusively raw, but they can be cooked--indeed, lettuce was normally eaten cooked till the time of Louis XVI, when the Chevalier d'Albignac famously dressed raw lettuce with a vinaigrette.



Envoi

Think lettuce, for all its virtues, is boring? Check out The Lettuce Ladies (this being the 21st century, female readers can check out The Broccoli Boys, on the same page).





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