Deciding which lettuce varieties to grow each year is a daunting task. The list is long and a small garden allows room to grow only two or three lettuces at once. I imagine that a person new to gardening could easily feel overwhelmed. Hopefully, this column will help as I cover the basic types of lettuces and, within each type, some of the open-pollinated and heirloom varieties that can be grown in New England gardens.
First, a couple of definitions from a seed grower’s point of view. An open-pollinated (OP) variety is one that is grown in the open where cross pollination of plants is uncontrolled and therefore random. Over time, the variety becomes genetically stabilized by repeated selection of the best plants for seed. Heirloom seeds are open-pollinated varieties that have been around for at least 50 years, often much longer.
Compared to hybrids, OP and heirloom varieties are more nutritious and better adapted to organic cultivation – that used to be all there was. Among lettuces, there are plenty of OP and heirloom varieties from which to choose.
Lettuce varieties can be categorized into four groups, each with its own growth characteristics:
Crisphead lettuce varieties, the most familiar of the four types
, are characterized by a tight, firm head of crisp, light-green leaves. They are generally intolerant of hot weather and will readily send up a flower stalk under hot summer conditions, a condition called “bolting”. Because of their long growing period, crisphead lettuces are difficult to grow in New England. I am only including one variety, Anuenue (pronounced Ah-new-ee-new-ee, which means “rainbow” in Hawaiian).
Butterhead types have smaller, softer heads of loosely folded leaves. The outer leaves may be green or brownish with cream or butter colored inner leaves.
Leaf lettuces have an open growth and do not form a head. Leaf form and color varies considerably–some cultivars are frilled and crinkled and others deeply lobed. Leaf colors range from light green to red and bronze. Leaf lettuces mature quickly and generally are the easiest to grow, however many varieties also wilt quickly after harvest, even when kept refrigerated.
Romaine or cos lettuces form upright, cylindrical heads of tightly folded leaves with succulent midribs. Leaf color is either green or red. The plants may reach up to 10 inches in height. Romaine is the sweetest and crunchiest of the four types.
Within each of the above groups, there are varieties recommended for each growing season: spring, summer, fall, and winter. In northern New England (Zones 3-5), winter temperatures are too cold to grow lettuce. In southern New England (Zones 6 and 7), some lettuce varieties can be grown in the winter months, if protected from extreme cold with row covers. There are also quite a few OP and heirloom lettuces that have a broad range of temperature tolerance and thus are recommended as all-season varieties.
Spring lettuces can be planted as early as the soil can be worked. Summer varieties should be sown in succession starting in mid-spring, providing dappled shade to improve taste. Fall varieties can be planted starting in August. In Zones 6 and 7, plantings of ultra-hardy varieties can be made in September and October for harvest through the winter.
Lettuce varieties that are described as “slow bolting” in seed catalogs were prime candidates for the following lists. In my Zone 5 garden, bolting often puts and end to the harvest of some lettuces in late June. Long before the flower stalk appears, the leaves of bolting varieties acquire a bitter taste.
OP and Heirloom Lettuce Varieties for New England Gardens
(Note: This is by no means a comprehensive list. To discover all of the possibilities, including photos, visit the seed company websites listed below.)
Crisphead Lettuce Varieties
Anuenue (spring/summer/fall/winter, 68-87 days) – Very heat tolerant, seeds sprouting in temperatures above 85 F; good flavor; slow to bolt. The Fedco Seeds catalog describes Anuenue this way: “How could I have overlooked Anuenue for so long? Well, it sure doesn’t look like much in June when most other lettuce is in full glory, but as the days get shorter and the heat gets stronger it really comes into its own.” (Bountiful Gardens, Fedco Seeds)
Butterhead Lettuce Varieties
Amish Speckled (spring/summer, 70 days) – Lime green leaves speckled with red on the outer leaves; pink heart leaves; very slow to bolt. (Bountiful Gardens)
Hungarian Pink Winter (fall/winter/spring, 60 days) – An old European heirloom with round green heads brushed with pink; easy to grow, good flavor, cold-hardy. (Bountiful Gardens)
Kagraner Sommer (spring/summer/fall, 58 days) – A heat-tolerant European heirloom with softly folded green leaves and solid, juicy hearts; leaves are soft and buttery, not crunchy; excellent for window boxes and pots. (Renee’s Garden)
Pirat (spring/summer/fall, 55 days) – Descended from the old French heirloom, Marvel of the Four Seasons, this is a heat-tolerant variety with superior flavor and texture; good disease resistance; well-packed heads reach anywhere from 6 to 10 inches high and wide, well-marked with bright red above the pale green. (Fedco Seeds, High Mowing Seeds, Park Seed)
Yugoslavian Red (spring/summer/fall, 60 days ) – Both decorative and tasty, the large, full heads grow to a foot across with puckered apple-green leaves tinged with pomegranate red; buttery succulent flavor. (The Cook’s Garden)
Leaf Lettuce Varieties
Emerald Fan (spring/fall) – Very fast growing; large deep-green leaves. (Bountiful Gardens)
Black-Seeded Simpson (spring/fall) – A tried and true heirloom for cool spring soils and frosty nights. Fresh, spring-green, curly leaves. (Bountiful Gardens, Fedco Seeds, High Mowing Seeds)
Chadwick’s Roday (spring/summer/fall, 50-75 days) – Deep green, nutritious leaves are sweet and buttery with a large crunch midrib. Needs afternoon shade in summer. (Bountiful Gardens)
Bronze Arrow (spring/summer/fall/winter, 60 days) – An old heirloom able to handle heat, compacted soil, and irregular watering; good cold tolerance, thawing after overnight frosts with little damage. (Bountiful Gardens, Fedco Seeds)
Merlot (spring/summer/fall, 58 days) – Darkest red of all lettuces, highest in anti-oxidant anthocyanins. (Bountiful Gardens)
Romaine Lettuce Varieties
Forellenschluss ( spring/fa//, 60 days) – An Austrian variety with lime-green leaves flecked with wine-red markings. (The Cook’s Garden, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds)
Rouge d’Hiver (spring/fall, 60 days) – A red romaine that does particularly well in the cool conditions of fall; frost tolerant. (High Mowing Seeds)
Winter Density (spring/fall/winter, 55-65 days) – Highly recommended by New England gardeners for sweet flavor; large, heavy, dark-green heads, 9-10 inches tall; slow to bolt; often used for autumn sowing; dense crunchy hearts; very good heat tolerance. (Bountiful Gardens, High Mowing Seeds)
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, www.rareseeds.com
Bountiful Gardens, www.bountifulgardens.org
Fedco Seeds, http://www.fedcoseeds.com/seeds.htm
Heritage Harvest Seeds, http://www.heritageharvestseed.com/peasaf.html
High Mowing Organic Seeds, www.highmowingseeds.com
Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Johnnyseeds.com
The Cook’s Garden, www.cooksgarden.com
Park Seed, http://parkseed.com/pea-lincoln/p/05219/
Renee’s Garden, www.reneesgarden.com
Territorial Seed Company, www.TerritorialSeed.com