July 21, 2017

Lettuce Varieties Abound to Tempt the Pickiest Palate

Sowing lettuce in stages means a steady crop over the growing season

Faith Pineo Photo | Sowing lettuce in stages means a steady crop over the growing season

• By Janine  Pineo •

The other day I was ankle-deep in composted manure, feeling hot and thirsty and covered with dust from a minor mishap with a powder-dry block of peat. Something to do with wind shear and bad timing, I recall.

As I stood catching my breath and looking around the Pineo plot, I thought, “This is the life.”

The newly returned phoebe couple were watching over five eggs in their spiffy nest of moss and mud outside the back door, just as they’ve done for the past few years.

Wave after wave of daffodils had put a sunny face in spots tucked here and there, showing how they’d multiplied since last year.

Bees were bumbling around the back lawn, drinking in the fragrant nectar of early violets.

And I was spreading manure.

It didn’t get any better until I spent a few minutes planting a small patch of cold-hardy vegetables in one of the raised beds. With precision never before seen under my watch, I placed spinach seeds in a neat little grid and snap peas in an eerily straight line. The lettuce seeds I scattered to the wind, but they were clinging to my sticky palm.

Lettuce and spinach are two of the easiest crops to grow, and over the years, my many trials and errors have uncovered some of the better varieties to give garden space.

Lettuce volunteers

Janine Pineo Photo | These rosettes of lettuce self-seeded from the 2011 plantings

Lettuce, or Lactuca sativa, has four major cultivated groups: asparagus lettuce, head or cabbage lettuce, leaf or curled lettuce, and cos or romaine lettuce. I prefer leaf lettuces, with their many flavors, although I also grow one head and one cos variety.

Most of my favorite leaf lettuces are also heirloom plants. Black Seeded Simpson was introduced in 1875 and remains a reliable crop, with its light green, frilly leaves that form a loose head. It also is slow to bolt (or go to seed), an added benefit if you don’t want to plant a new row every couple of weeks.

Oakleaf, introduced more than 100 years ago, produces a large bunch of leaves on a single stalk. It is one of the most dependable lettuces, rarely bolting before autumn and staying sweet and flavorful all summer long.

The heirloom Deer Tongue sounds odd and looks odder with its triangular leaves. It tends to form a tighter head than most leaf lettuces and is slow to bolt.

More recent introductions that make my list include Green Ice, a glossy, brilliant green lettuce whose leaves are deeply crinkled and stay crisper than other leaf varieties. For an added bit of color, consider Vulcan with its huge 14-inch leaves that are green at the base and burst into a mottled red on its edges.

For a head lettuce, Tom Thumb produces a small but full head in about 45 days. One plant makes enough for a large salad for one person, and the flavor of this butterhead will you make you want to horde all of it yourself.

Cimarron, a bronze-red romaine lettuce, is an heirloom variety that can be traced back to the 18th century. Like all romaines, Cimarron grows into a cylindrical shape, retaining its flavor as it matures.

Like most vegetables, lettuce and spinach can be traced back through the centuries to their possible points of origin. Lettuce, an eastern Mediterranean native, was served to Persian kings around 550 B.C. Early lettuce was less leaf and more stem and probably was cooked before it was eaten.

Spinach’s roots are Persian in some books, with a few nods to the Far East as well. In what today is Iran, spinach was cultivated by the Persians. The Greeks and Romans planted it, and during the 16th century, spinach was growing in northern Europe.

Spinach, or Spinacia oleracea, is a hardy annual that thrives in the cool spring weather, making it a perfect crop to plant early. I have yet to find a spinach that won’t bolt when hot weather strikes, but a couple are considered more heat-tolerant than others.

The heirloom Long-standing Bloomsdale offers good flavor and vigorous production. Its dark green hue makes a nice addition to salads, and it can’t be beat cooked.

A newer variety, Space, has smoother leaves that are easier to clean. It also has high yields in less space needed by other spinach varieties.

It wasn’t until the 1920s that the nutritional content of spinach attracted attention. Besides being high in iron, spinach boasts a hefty dose of vitamins A and C. Plus, it has just 10 calories in a 3-ounce serving.

Which means I could eat most of the patch and still have room for dessert.

I’m headed for the melons.

Sources for seeds
Pinetree Garden Seeds
Johnny’s Selected Seeds

First published in the Bangor Daily News in May 1999.