Growing Classic, Heirloom Head Lettuce

Head LettuceHarder to grow and less nutritious than leaf varieties, organic head lettuce is still a thing of beauty.

When did I become a lettuce snob? It was back in my youth, about the same time I became interested in healthy eating and gardening. I’d been raised on iceberg lettuce, the kind that came from the grocery store in big pale heads. Mom would tear up the leaves, put them in a bowl and voila! Salad. I didn’t mind it. Those tasteless leaves we’re just a way for us to get that sweet, commercial, orange-colored salad dressing in our mouths. Look ma! I’m eating vegetables!

Then I learned about leaf lettuce. For one, it had more nutrition than head lettuce, which is over 95% water. You couldn’t find leaf lettuce in the stores (way) back then. But you could grow it in your garden. And grow it we did. Green ice, deer tongue, black-seeded Simpson; all began to take up space in the garden. Then came the mesclun mixes and we were completely hooked. We planted it early in the spring and often began harvesting in June. We learned about successive harvests and secondary planting. We planted it in late August in our cold frame which gave us harvests well into the fall.

Head lettuce didn’t compare. Somewhere a long the way we began to believe that head lettuce was all water and had no nutrition at all. It was also harder to grow. You could be picking leaf lettuce within 30-40 days. But it took 70 days or more before you harvested head lettuce. Head lettuce also require a lot more watering (see 95% water above). Leaf lettuce allowed one to “cut and come again.” Once head lettuce was harvested, it was done. Head lettuce also seemed more prone to pests and disease.

But the biggest problem growing head lettuce came in mid summer when it got hot. Head lettuce would loose its head. The leaves would spread and turn yellow. When our much harvested leaf lettuce began to bolt and go to seed, our unharvested, immature head lettuce would fall apart. Harder to grow, less nutritious, more demanding of water . . . why would any body bother to grow it?

Well, we’ve changed our minds. All it took was a visit to our neighbor’s garden late last summer and the vision of her beautiful, tight heads of brilliant green iceberg lettuce centered on its own palette of spreading, over-lapped leaves. They were a thing of beauty, suggestive of a Georgia O’Keefe painting (as best I know, she never painted a lettuce head). “How’d you do it?” I asked. “It was something of a challenge,” our friend admitted.

And there they are: reasons to grow head lettuce. Done right, they’re aesthetically pleasing, a big green blossom growing straight from the ground. The second reason? They’re a challenge. And if there’s anything gardeners like, it’s a challenge. We know a gardener who’s keeping a pair of banana trees alive on an island in Puget Sound and another who’s intent on harvesting cantaloupes in a high altitude garden that barely goes 60 days between frosts (and even less between snowfalls). Why do they do it? It’s a challenge. And when you succeed at overcoming a challenge in the garden, you literally taste success.

Like almost everything you grow at home, iceberg lettuce from the garden is more flavorful than what you buy in the store. If you’ve kept it watered, it will be crisp and, unlike those pale leaves from grocery-store head lettuce, full of life-sustaining chlorophyll. You’ll get some of that green flavor that salad lovers enjoy when it comes from leaf lettuce.

Sure, there’s no overcoming the fact that dark, leaf lettuces are nutritional powerhouses when compared to head lettuce. But it isn’t as if head lettuce has no nutrition. It does have a fair amount of Vitamin K and modest amounts of Vitamin A. And don’t forget its roughage content, even if it is only 1 gram per cup. One of our more respected heirloom seed suppliers (iceberg lettuce goes back over 110 years) points out, surprisingly, its “low nutrition.” Talk about honesty in the market place.

Still we’re growing iceberg this year. And it was doing well thanks to the cool weather we’ve been having. Fingers crossed. Our correspondent in Santa Fe, New Mexico, however, reports that the head lettuce in the community garden is going all flat now that the heat has set in. He notes their particular problems. At over 7,000 feet in elevation, frost comes late into spring, delaying seeding or putting starts out in the garden. But then summer comes on quickly. Head lettuces require a long, cool growing season. That’s why its perfect for places that have cool, cloudy summers, places where sweet corn and tomatoes are a challenge (see above).

Here’s some tips that might lead to head lettuce success, no matter (well, some matter) where you live.

First, choose a variety best suited to your regional growing conditions by asking your local garden-club members or extension service. Some extension services might try to discourage growing it in your area (Illinois has those hot, mid-summers). Forget that. Make it a challenge. Start seedlings indoors and then put them, under cover in a cold frame or in the garden under a plastic milk jug ahead (but not far ahead) of the last frost. Don’t let seedlings get too large before transplanting . . . they’ll go flat and not form a tight head once in the garden. We’ve read where lettuce seedlings can be held up to two weeks in the refrigerator before transplanting, but we haven’t tried this ourselves.

Work plenty of compost and organic matter into the soil ahead of transplanting or direct seeding. If using transplants, also work in some high nitrogen fertilizer. Lettuce is a modestly heavy feeder and the nitrogen will encourage quick growth. Don’t work in a lot of nitrogen fertilizer into your soil ahead of direct seeding. It may discourage germination. Wait until the seedlings are well on their way and then use diluted measures of fish fertilizer, or compost and worm tea.

Lettuce is tolerant to partial shade. Seek these places out in your garden for lettuce planting, especially in regions where the summers are hot and dry. Water thoroughly. Once a lettuce leaf starts to burn at the tip or yellow, it becomes an eyesore (see aesthetics above). Providing shade for your plants is also a good idea. Make sure there is plenty of ventilation though. You don’t want them overheating.

In places where summers are predictably hot, try starting you plants indoors in a cool spot, say the basement, and provide them cool light, like that from T5 fluorescents. Transplant as soon as summer heat lifts, then keep your fingers crossed that the plants mature before the days get too short. I once grew a couple heads of iceberg lettuce that over-wintered in our coastal, Southern California town, then took off when the day began to lengthen in March. Most gardeners aren’t blessed with that sort of mild climate.

Not up for the challenge? Or not having any success? Butterhead type lettuces with their tight leaves and crispy texture are a good substitute. We also like Romaine lettuces with their thick leaves and crisp bite. But they, too, can be heat sensitive. Get them in as early as you can.

Experiences with head lettuce? Or maybe you just don’t think they’re worth the trouble considering their inferior nutritional content? Let us know your practices and opinions.

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