by Maura McDermott
As a child who grew up eating only iceberg lettuce from the grocery store, I was pleasantly surprised by my first bowl of fresh “Buttercrunch” lettuce from the garden. A butterhead (or Boston) type lettuce, it was melt-in-your-mouth tender, and actually had flavor. Who knew?
This was about thirty years ago. After many years of growing Buttercrunch I stumbled upon a catalog of “heirloom” or old-fashioned varieties of vegetables, which listed a few dozen varieties of lettuce, with names like “Bronze Arrowhead,” “Red Velvet” and “Webb’s Wonderful.” The photos and descriptions were irresistible. I ordered several packets, planted in early spring and after a month began picking leaves.
Those were my salad days. I began making salads that can only be described as beautiful. A typical concoction included an oak-leaf lettuce, a crisphead, a red-spotted romaine, and assorted leaves of chartreuse and magenta—crinkled, frilly or wrapped in tight rosettes.
Nothing beats fresh-from-the-garden lettuce, for tenderness, flavor and show. I plant it spring and fall, and it is a high point each season. While days to harvest range from 45 to 65 days, one does not have to wait for the plant to be full-grown to begin harvesting; I start picking the outer leaves as soon as they get a decent size.
For those who want to hold out for a big beautiful head of lettuce, plant early. Lettuce loves cool weather. Apparently, longer days, hot weather and dry conditions or some combination of these cause lettuce to bolt (put up a flower/seed stalk) and the leaves become bitter-tasting.
Because in Oklahoma hot weather can come pretty early, it is a challenge to grow lettuce. But for several weeks at the beginning and end of the growing season, and in cold frames to extend the season, it can be done. And it’s worth the trouble.
These days people don’t look askance when served leaf lettuces and salad mixes of young lettuce and other greens. And gardeners and market farmers can find a broad variety of lettuces as well as salad mixes in traditional seed catalogs, as well as in heirloom seed catalogs.
I look for “slow-bolting” varieties, but confess I have yet to find one I thought was truly slow to bolt, though some seem to “hold” a little better than others. It is worth experimenting to see which works best for you. I try a new variety every year.
Enterprising farmers and gardeners can save the seed from non-hybrid lettuce varieties to plant in the next season. In south Texas, there is a semi-legendary variety of lettuce called “Crawford,” adapted to the hot and dry of the Lone Star State. Perhaps someday an Okie gardener will come
up with a lettuce that is big and pretty and thrives in red clay dirt under clear blue skies.
“Oklahoma Red” has a nice ring, don’t you think?
Lettuce shows up early at Oklahoma farmers’ markets, and they are good places to get your first taste of spring. To find a market go to
For the ins and outs of bolting visit: http://www.vegetablegardener.com/item/5044/why-lettuce-bolts-and-what-you-can-do-about-it#
Call your local OSU Extension office or go to http://osufacts.okstate.edu/docushare/dsweb/View/Collection-398
for fact sheets:
HLA 6032 Vegetable Varieties for the Home Garden in Oklahoma
HLA 6004 Oklahoma Garden Planning Guide
HLA 6009 Fall Gardening
Here are some of my favorite varieties! Tell us your experiences growing lettuce, (heirloom and otherwise)! Do you have a favorite variety?
Buttercrunch: A perennial favorite, recommended for Oklahoma gardens. Butterhead.
Forellenschuss: Romaine Austrian heirloom that translates leterally as “trout, self enclosing” meaning it’s a speckled romaine. Gorgeous with medium green leaves and splotches of maroon.
Australian Yellow:Very tender, color almost a neon chrtreuse. Looseleaf.
Bronze Arrowhead: Introduced in 1947 as an All American Selection, named Broze Beauty. Looseleaf.
Green Oakleaf: Known as Baltimore or Philadelphia Oakleaf in the 1880s. Longstanding. Looseleaf.
Speckled: Seed carried to Ontario from Pennsylvania in a covered wagon. with a Mennonite family. Possibly brought over from Holland. Looseleaf.
Tango: Deeply cut, pointed leaves. Tender, tangy. looseleaf.
Yugoslavian Red Butterhead: Mild flavor, redtinged leaves, gorgeous, very tender. Butterhead.
Webb’s Wonderful: English crisphead, large robust heads with crumpled leaves. Good texture. Recommended for planting in the South. Crisphead.
(Some descriptions taken from Seed Savers Exchange catalog, www.seedsavers.org