When I was a kid, I don’t remember liking vegetables very much. I fit the typical cliché of a kid that had to be coaxed into eating anything good for them by smothering it in cheese. There were a few vegetables I would eat on occasion, but lettuce was not one of them. If we were at a restaurant that served a salad with the entrée, I would politely decline. I didn’t want any of those “fancy” or “frilly” lettuces on my plate. If it was any color other than the pale green of the iceberg variety, it wasn’t going into my mouth.
Fast forward to the present day when I have, thankfully, outgrown my distaste for lettuce. It is now on the “must grow” list each year in the vegetable garden, and it’s not just the iceberg variety that makes the cut. I love all varieties, from leaf lettuce (red, green, and oak), romaine, butterhead (Boston and bibb), and yes, iceberg to mesclun and spring mixes interspersed with arugula, mustard greens, spinach, or frisée. If it has speckles or deep red color, all the better, I no longer limit my lettuce choices to pale green. My palate has expanded to enjoy all varieties.
Lettuce (Lactuca sativa) is a member of the daisy family and was initially farmed by the ancient Egyptians. In those times, lettuce was mainly grown for its oil-rich seeds and later became prized for its leaves as a food crop. By 50 AD, lettuce was mentioned in medieval writings, where many types were described as useful for medicinal purposes. The 16th through 18th centuries brought heaps of cultivars to market in Europe, many of which are still grown in gardens today.
Lettuce is considered a cool-weather, hardy annual. It is easily cultivated; however, it requires cool temperatures to prevent bolting. When lettuce bolts or goes to flower and sets seed, the leaves typically taste bitter. Therefore, it is best to grow your lettuce when temperatures are consistently between 61 to 64֯ F. Most varieties will tolerate temperatures as low as 45֯ F. They will start growing poorly once temperatures reach 75֯ F and above. Some cultivars are bred to be winter hardy and will overwinter under straw or row cover and grow in a cold frame.
In my gardens, I typically grow spring mixes instead of heads of lettuce. I love the versatility of the cut-and-come-again mixes. They allow you to harvest as much as you need, and they regrow several times in a season. One packet of seeds will provide bowl after bowl of delicious greens. Of course, I inevitably plant way too much every year, dazzled by the endless available varieties that I MUST try. I wind up harvesting so much that we eat like rabbits for weeks on end so that it doesn’t go to waste. If it didn’t wilt, you would probably find me smuggling it under my jacket and leaving it anonymously on all the neighbor’s doorsteps, just as the zucchini gardeners do with their harvests. Except my neighbors would say, “Lock your doors, it’s lettuce season!”
In truth, I do have one gripe with lettuce. Unlike its vegetable garden companions, lettuce is best eaten fresh and raw. You can’t freeze it, can it, or dry it, and there are very few recipes where you can cook it, so it doesn’t preserve well. You can put it in a salad or on a sandwich or wrap, and then your options start to run out.
But, how can I resist growing this impressive crop that is so easy to grow and yields so much? In short, I can’t. So, I stuff my face with salad after salad, sandwich after sandwich, until lettuce season is over. On the bright side, lettuce is packed with vitamin K, vitamin A, folate, and iron, which is doing my body good. Besides, there is nothing like the taste of fresh, homegrown lettuce…except maybe a homegrown tomato, or cucumber, or beans, or peas. You know what? Who am I kidding? They ALL taste better grown right in your backyard garden. And there are so many lettuce varieties available in seed catalogs that you’d never find on a grocery store shelf. Why not try them?
There is no doubt in my mind that I will continue to grow lettuce every year in my garden. I will harvest the many bowls of greens it provides, eat its tender leaves, and stress over making sure we use it all. Growing lettuce has become a tradition, one that I am not willing to break. And so, I will continue to look to my family and say, “Romaine calm and let us eat lettuce” until each of those harvested leaves are gone.