Red, green, plain or fancy, tall, squat, and very delicious, lettuce is my favorite crop. Because I plant so much of it, I’ve experimented with dozens of varieties. And since there are hundreds to choose from, I’ve only scratched the surface. I’m always open to your suggestions.
Lettuce can be divided into a number of distinct types. There are loose-leaf, cos (or romaine), butterhead, Batavian, and crisp head—each with its own good and not-so-good points. Then, there are a few varieties that simply defy description.
Loose-leaf lettuce is probably the most common type of lettuce grown by home gardeners. For one, it’s easy to grow. It’s also fast to mature and can be snipped for mesclun only a few weeks after seeding. Some varieties are very hardy—surviving down to ten degrees in my garden—while others are exceptionally heat tolerant, practically refusing to bolt. And there are so many pretty varieties from which to choose! As mentioned above, some are short and wide, others are tall, and still others form neat balls just right for a single serving.
When choosing a variety of loose-leaf lettuce, it’s tempting to go by appearances, but it’s important to consider several other attributes. Disease resistance is one. If you’ve had issues with tip burn, for example, then select varieties that have been bred to tolerate or resist that problem.
If you live where summers are hot, look for varieties that are slow to bolt. Conversely, if you intend to push the limits of your growing season, choose extra hardy lettuces.
And finally, flavor is a Big Deal. I prefer my lettuce to be sweet, tender, or a bit crunchy, so I look for varieties with those characteristics.
What loose-leaf lettuces do I grow?
Simpson Elite is my all-round favorite. Slower to bolt than its predecessor (heirloom Black-seeded Simpson), it forms huge, somewhat floppy bunches of lime-green, somewhat crinkled leaves that are consistently delicious. Give it lots of space for a leaf lettuce—probably a square foot or so.
For a bit of crunch without resorting to iceberg and its relatives (which have very little nutritional value), I grow Green Ice. As its name suggests, the inner leaves get pretty thick and succulent while the ruffled outer leaves retain the dark green color that promises vitamins and minerals. It does not form a true head, although the inside leaves curl together a bit.
To add some contrast to all the green, I include several bright red varieties. New Red Fire has been consistently slow to bolt, as well as sporting smooth, elongated leaves that are a deep, deep burgundy—stunning in both the garden and the kitchen.
For red ruffles, try the heirloom Italian lettuce, Lolla Rossa. The round clumps of very frilly green-to-red leaves remind me of huge carnations.
A number of seed companies now offer mixes that include a variety of loose-leaf lettuces. This is an easy and economical way to grow lots of varieties while only buying a single packet. I take advantage of these offers, especially for baby greens (sown densely, then snipped off at the two-to-four leaf stage). But since the seeds are all mixed together, there is no way of knowing which plant is which. I prefer to pick out most of my lettuces by name. Then I know exactly what to expect, and I can experiment to see which ones did best in my garden. Or maybe I’m just a control freak.
I’ve had a few varieties that just didn’t do well in my garden. Oak Leaf and Black-seeded Simpson both bloomed prematurely, the Oak Leaf became bitter as soon as the weather warmed, and one year several varieties I’d previously had good luck with simply up and died.
I view choosing lettuce varieties in the same vein as picking out annuals for my flower beds. Experiment. Take a risk. Even go wild! Where else can you have so much fun (and eat the results!) while spending so little?