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We are all familiar with the common iceberg lettuces that are so readily available at the grocery store, but what we have failed to realize all these years is that those varieties we see so abundantly are chosen specifically for their shipping and storing attributes, with little concern for the taste or nutritional value.  Granted, there is a place in the world for iceberg lettuce, but there is so much more for the home gardener to discover as far as taste, color, body, and nutrition in other lettuces that it's a shame that more of us haven't delved more deeply into the options available.  The grocery stores are finally coming around, and now many offer various types of looseleaf and the always wonderful butterheads, to their credit.  But as we all know, nothing beats the taste and texture of a fresh, homegrown vegetable, and this is especially true in the world of lettuces.

Lettuce is mainly a cool season crop, but a few types will do reasonably well even in warmer weather with proper care.  Introduction of new, improved types is happening every year, and there are hundreds of individual lettuces with various cold and heat tolerances.  There are 5 basic types of lettuce, described below:

Butterhead:  Also known as Boston, Bibb, Buttercrunch, or Limestone lettuce.  This is a lettuce with outstanding sweet flavor and smooth, buttery consistency of the leaves. These types form small, loose heads and come in colors from green to red to yellow.  They are bolt resistant and somewhat heat tolerant, and are a delight in the home gardening situation for taste, looks, and ease of culture.

Crisphead:  Also known as the familiar Iceberg, this is amazingly one of the toughest varieties of lettuce to grow in the home garden. It requires a long growing season without severe freezes and bolts quickly and becomes bitter in warmer weather.  However, there are varieties especially developed for the home gardener, including Great Lakes, for those who want to give it a try.

French Batavian:  Also known as Batavian, Summer Batavian, Loosehead, and French Crisp, these lettuces start off with loose leaves that later form loosely formed heads similar to the Crispheads.  Some varieties can be a bit bland as far as taste, but they are quite bolt resistant and do not turn bitter after bolting.

Looseleaf:  Easy to grow with a variety of colors, textures, flavors, and leaf shapes, there is a place for looseleaf lettuces in every garden.  Harvest can start as soon as the leaves are big enough to eat, and most plants will regenerate leaves quickly as you harvest them. 

Romaine:  Other names for this lettuce are Cos, Roman, and Manchester lettuce. Romaine is a nutritious deep green, long-leaved, mildly bitter lettuce with crisp mid ribs.  It requires a long growing season and bolts readily.   

Although lettuces differ widely in form and in growing season requirements, they all share the same gardening basics.  Loose, rich, well-drained soil, mulch, and a minimum of  half a day of sun are absolute musts for the best results. Vigorous growth is the goal, and continuous moisture is the key.  For an earlier crop, start seeds indoors in February or buy young plants as soon as they are available in the garden store. The seeds are small, so put a few in each starting container and cover very lightly with soil, then tamp down. Once the seedlings have sprouted, be sure to harden off the plants by exposing them to the cold little by little for a couple of weeks before transplanting into the garden.  If a hard freeze is expected after you have planted outside, cover the young plants with a sheet or blanket to protect them.  Otherwise, most lettuces will tolerate light frosts.

If you don't have room in the garden, lettuce can also be grown in containers.  Lettuce has a shallow root system, so a wide, shallow container will work well.  Again, continuous moisture is the key, so use a good soil that retains moisture and place in a window with strong indirect light or under cool white fluorescent lighting.  Don't use plant grow lights or the plants will bolt.  Use bolt resistant varieties that mature quickly for best results in containers. 

Harvesting lettuce is the fun part.  For all except the Crispheads, harvest outer leaves as soon as they are big enough to eat.  For those that form loose heads, leave the center alone and the plant will form the head even with the outer leaves being harvested regularly.

No discussion of lettuce would be complete without a word about Mesclun.  Also called Field Greens or Spring mix, Mesclun is simply a mixture of young, tender leaves harvested from a variety of cultivated and wild plants.  The object is to create a medley of color, texture, and taste with a mixture of bitter, smooth, sweet, crunchy or tangy.  Young lettuces are perfect to start, but you can also incorporate young dandelion leaves, arugula, edible flowers such as pansy, herbs, or anything else from the garden or the wild that suits your taste.  It's fun to experiment with different combinations of taste and texture, so use your creativity!

Medicinal Value: All lettuces are good for us, as they are high in water content and therefore low in calories.  Lettuce is a good source of dietary fiber and vitamins A, B, C, and K, as well as potassium, magnesium, and calcium .  Although Romaine is the best, all lettuces have these same properties in varying degrees.  Research indicates that eating lettuce daily can reduce an older woman's chance of hip fracture by about 45%.  With its high water and fiber content, eating lettuce on a regular basis cuts the risk for constipation and promotes urination. A general rule of thumb for choosing the most nutritious type of lettuce is the darker the leaf color, the more nutritional value.  Obviously, mixing lettuce with other fresh produce and even meats and cheeses in salads is a healthy, low calorie way to double, triple, or quadruple the benefits, and as such, salads should be part of our everyday live health-wise.



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