Lettuce offers 4 main types from which to choose; crisphead, butterhead, romaine, and leaf. Numerous varieties of each type are available. The type of lettuce you choose to grow depends upon your growing season as well as your taste preferences.
Crisphead lettuce, more commonly known as iceberg, forms a tight firm head of crisp leaves. It is also the most difficult type of lettuce to grow. Crisphead lettuce can be direct sown or started indoors. Rows in the garden should be 18 to 24 inches apart, plants within the rows should be thinned to 12 to 14 inches between plants. Crisphead lettuce generally doesn't grow well in Iowa. Adventuresome gardeners may want to try 'Mission', 'Great Lakes', and 'Ithaca'. Most varieties mature in 70 to 85 days.
Butterhead varieties are heading types as well except their leaves are loosely folded on top of one another. The inside leaves, because of their lack of light, are cream or butter colored. The outer leaves are darker green or brownish. Butterhead varieties can be harvested by removing the outer leaves or by digging up the entire head. Spacing in the garden is the same as the crisphead varieties. Recommended varieties for Iowa include 'Buttercrunch' and 'Summer Bib'. Both are slow bolting and mature in approximately 75 days.
Romaine or cos lettuce is upright in form and grows 8 or 9 inches tall. The tightly folded leaves are greenish white in the center and medium green on the outside. Their flavor is sweeter than the other types of lettuce. Varieties to try include 'Paris Island Cos' and 'Valmaine'. Harvest by removing outer leaves or the entire head. Varieties mature in 70 days.
The easiest type of lettuce to grow is the leaf or bunching lettuce. Leaf lettuce should be thinned to 4 to 6 inches apart in the row for best growth. Leaves are harvested as they mature. Leaves come in a wide variety of shapes and colors. The best known variety is 'Black Seeded Simpson'. Others include 'Salad Bowl', 'Ruby', and 'Green Ice'. 'Red Sails', 'Oakleaf', and 'Bronze Leaf' have attractive foliage and good flavor as well. Leaf lettuce matures in 40 to 45 days. Plant at weekly intervals beginning in early April and again starting in mid August to extend the season of enjoyment. Most varieties available are heat resistant and slow to bolt.
Lettuce is playing a bigger role in many of our diets. This gardening season, plant an assortment of types and varieties for a plateful of flavor and color.
This article originally appeared in the April 6, 1994 issue, p. 40.