Growing up on Long Island, I was never a fan of garden lettuce. Each spring and summer, my dad would grow Bibb and Buttercrunch lettuce in the garden. To me, they tasted funny – butter. Worse, slugs and earwigs nestled between the leaves. I can’t tell you how many good dinner salads were ruined by a surprised earwig darted out from under a shower of Wishbone Italian Dressing.
As an adult, I’ve grown to appreciate the culinary richness of the many types of lettuce available to backyard gardeners. Iceberg, Romaine and some of the loose leaf lettuce varieties may be the most commercially viable, and thus the most readily available at the supermarket, but there’s a wealth of tastes, textures and colors available to the backyard gardener just waiting to be explores. Let’s take a look today at the types of lettuce.
Types of Lettuce
While there are many types of lettuce, the big three that are grown throughout the United States are leaf, head and cos.
- Leaf lettuces have a loose, open appearance; think “green” or “red” leaf lettuces.
- Head lettuces are the typical iceberg lettuce heads wrapped in plastic you find at the market or plopped onto your mass-produced chain store hamburger. Tasteless, almost white, commercially grown iceberg is actually difficult to grow in the home garden (more on that later) so if it’s the only type of lettuce your family enjoys, it’s better to buy it than to grow it.
- Cos lettuce is also called Romaine lettuce. It has thick green leaves and a mild flavor. It is also a little difficult to grow in the garden, but not impossible!
These are the big three you can find in almost any store, so if you’re new to growing lettuce you might want to try to grow something you can taste beforehand. That’s especially important if you have a family, since kids can be fussy about trying new foods.
If you’re feeling adventurous, there are plenty of other types of lettuce to try – and some of them are delicious! Mixed into salad bowl, they also create a beautiful meal filled with intriguing textures, colors and flavors.
- Butterhead lettuces have smaller, more delicate leaves. This is the type my dad grew in the backyard garden and probably the easiest for anyone to grow. Bibb, Buttercrunch and Boston lettuces are types of lettuce most familiar to home gardeners.
- Summercrisp lettuce varieties are good for our hot, southern climate since they are ‘bolt resistant’, meaning they don’t go to seed in hot weather quite as fast as other types. Batavia and French Crisp are varieties to try.
Some lettuces are grown primarily for their stalks. Many Chinese dishes use these types of lettuce since the stalks stay crisp and firm during cooking. Lastly, lettuce can be grown for its oily seeds. This lettuce is often grown commercially, and the oil extracted from the seeds is used in cooking oil blends.
Types of Lettuce for Virginia Gardens
I found a great publication online called Organic Lettuce Production in Virginia that covers not only the types of lettuce that thrive in our state, but all sorts of cultivation practices to grow organic lettuce. This booklet is available at no charge online and on page 12 you can find a long list of varieties suitable for Virginia’s variable climate.
A few favorites that I’ve grown successfully here at Seven Oaks include:
Romaine – I’ve grown Romaine lettuce, but it never grows very tall. It takes fine, though, so I grow it to mix into my salad bowl.
- Red Sails – a red leaf variety, Red Sails has a beautiful ruby color and flavorful leaves.
- Ice Queen – a nice cool weather variety with icy green foliage and a crisp, sweet flavor.
- Buttercrunch – fast growing, small leaf variety, Buttercrunch gives you plenty of lettuce with very little effort.
I also like to grow the gourmet lettuce mixtures that includes oak leaf varieties and mesclun salad mixtures. These gourmet greens set you back several dollars at the grocery store, but a $1.29 package of seeds from Tractor Supply or Lowe’s yields dozens of salads. They’re fun to grow and even more enjoyable to eat! Burpee Seed offers a nice gourmet salad seed blend that’s worth a try.
Whatever you choose to grow in your garden, make sure you do not plant all the seeds at once. Stagger your planting so that you plant some seeds each week or every two weeks. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a huge amount of lettuce and not enough time to eat it all before it goes bad. You can’t can it or store it, so enjoy it while it lasts!
“This is such a well-written and helpful little gardening book. In it, Jeanne offers a multitude of ideas and tips for creating the best raised bed garden! I can’t wait for spring!” – Karen, Amazon Review
My book, Plan and Build a Raised Bed Vegetable Garden, will walk you through all the steps that you need to take to plan your garden and build convenient, simple raised beds. Purchase your copy on Amazon or wherever fine books are sold. It’s available as a paperback and an ebook.
Jeanne Grunert is a certified Virginia Master Gardener and the author of several gardening books. Her garden articles, photographs, and interviews have been featured in The Herb Companion, Virginia Gardener, and Cultivate, the magazine of the National Farm Bureau. She is the founder of The Christian Herbalists group and a popular local lecturer on culinary herbs and herbs for health, raised bed gardening, and horticulture therapy.