One thing I recommend to anyone who asks me about what they should grow in their first vegetable garden is that they first think about what it is that they like to eat. And people tell me, almost 100% of the time, that they really want to grow their own lettuce for fresh, healthful salads.
I don't blame them. There is so much to lettuce besides iceberg and Romaine. What about sweet, tender 'Buttercrunch' or beautiful 'Lollo Rossa'? "Deer Tongue,' 'Sanguine Ameliore,' 'Mascara,' and 'Oak Leaf' -- how could you not fall in love with lettuce, when it offers so much variety and beauty, not to mention flavor?
There are actually 5 main types of lettuce: crisphead, cos (Romaine), butterhead, Batavian, and looseleaf. The first four are essentially "head lettuces," forming a central rosette of leaves that grows in on itself. You harvest head lettuces by either cutting off the entire head, or by taking the outer leaves as you need them. The last type, looseleaf, also known as "cut-and-come-again" lettuce, is the one I most often recommend.
Why I Love Growing Looseleaf Lettuces
When you grow looseleaf lettuces, you are able to enjoy your harvest much sooner than if you grow head lettuce. Most head lettuces are ready to harvest in 50 to 70 days -- much sooner than many other veggies, but still a long time if you're craving a killer salad from your garden. By growing looseleaf lettuces, you can often harvest as soon as 6 to 8 weeks after planting, because they are generally eaten as baby lettuce leaves. When the leaves are about three inches high, you simply snip them out of the garden, leaving about an inch of growth near the soil. They will continue growing, producing more leaves for you to harvest in a few weeks.
Another advantage to looseleaf lettuce is that it grows very, very well in containers. Windowboxes, flowerpots, and half barrels are all excellent containers for growing leaf lettuce. The soil doesn't even need to be all that deep, since lettuce is shallow-rooted. This makes it easy to grow a container of lettuce just about anywhere.
One more reason to grow looseleaf lettuces is that it's just generally easier. They require very little care other than regular watering. Crisphead lettuces have a hard time growing once the weather gets hot, but you can grow looseleaf lettuce throughout the summer, especially if you provide a little protection from the sun.
Favorite Looseleaf Lettuce Varieties
Here are some of my absolute favorite looseleaf lettuces:
- 'Salad Bowl'
- 'Oak Leaf'
- 'Red Sails'
- 'Black Seeded Simpson'
- Any "mesclun" mix of seeds also works well -- these are generally mixes of looseleaf lettuces and other salad greens such as arugula, mustard, and beet greens.
The flavor and color looseleaf lettuces add to our meals, as well as how easy they are to grow, ensures that they will always have a place of honor in my garden.