Lettuce


It's hard to imagine a salad or a sandwich without lettuce. With so many diverse varieties to choose from, there's a lettuce for every taste. Lettuce is also an ingredient in many delicious vegetable recipes. In this article, we'll talk about growing lettuce, the types of lettuce, selecting lettuce and the health benefits of lettuce.

heads of lettuce
Lettuce leaf colors range from light green to reddish brown.
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About Lettuce

Lettuce is a hardy, fast-growing annual vegetable with either loose or compact leaves. Leaf color ranges from light green through reddish brown. When it bolts, or goes to seed, the flower stalks are 2 to 3 feet tall, with small, yellowish flowers on the stalk. The lettuce most commonly found in supermarkets (iceberg, or crisphead, lettuce) is the most difficult to grow in the home vegetable garden. Butterhead lettuces, which have loose heads and delicate crunchy leaves, are easier to grow. Cos, or romaine, lettuce forms a loose, long head and is between a butterhead and leaf lettuce in flavor. Leaf lettuce is delightfully easy to grow, grows fast, and provides bulk and color to salads.

Common Name: Lettuce
Scientific Name: Lactuca sativa
Hardiness: Very Hardy (will survive first frost)

In the next section, we'll show you how to grow lettuce.

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Growing Lettuce

Lettuce is a cool-season crop, usually grown from seed planted in the garden four to six weeks before the average date of last frost. Long, hot summer days will make the plants bolt. If your area has a short, hot growing season, start head lettuce from seed indoors eight to ten weeks before the average date of last frost; transplant as soon as possible so the plants will mature before the weather gets really hot.

heads of lettuce
Lettuce is a cool-season crop.

Sow succession crops, beginning in midsummer. In climates with mild winters, grow spring, fall, and winter crops. If you are direct-seeding lettuce in the garden, sow seeds 1/4 inch deep in wide rows. When the seedlings are large enough to handle, thin leaf lettuce to 8 inches apart and head lettuce to 12 inches apart. Thinning is important: Heading lettuce won't head, and all lettuce may bolt if the plants are crowded. Lettuce needs well-worked soil with good drainage and moisture retention. Always keep the soil evenly moist. Don't let the shallow-rooted lettuce plants dry out.

Harvesting Lettuce

As the lettuce grows, either pick the outer leaves and let the inner leaves develop or harvest the whole plant at once by cutting it off at ground level. Try to harvest when the weather is cool; in the heat of the day the leaves may be limp. Chilling will crisp the leaves again.

Lettuce Growing Tips

These tips will help you grow crisp, delicious lettuce:
  • Raised beds covered with heavy-duty floating row covers can provide protection from frosts and light freezes in early to mid-spring and mid- to late fall, or even winter in mild climates.
  • Cold frames, heated by the sun, make it possible to grow lettuce earlier in spring and later in fall or winter. Cold frames are translucent rectangular boxes, about 2 feet wide, 4 feet long, and 18 inches high. The top is hinged to open so you can tend plants inside or cool the cold frame on mild, sunny days. Plant seeds or seedlings of lettuce in the frame and close the lid to hold in the heat.
  • A hot bed, which is a souped-up cold frame, is a great place for winter lettuce. Lay a heating cable under the cold frame. Cover with wire mesh to prevent damage to the cable and top with a layer of sand mixed with compost.
  • For an extended lettuce harvest, pick the largest leaves from the outside of the plant and allow the younger inner leaves to continue growing. But when springtime weather begins to get warm, you need to take the opposite strategy. Cut off the entire plant before it begins to send up a flower stem (a condition called bolting) and turns bitter.
  • Get twice the harvest by planting a lettuce and tomato garden in an 18- or 24-inch-wide pot. You can pick the lettuce as it swells and leave extra growing room for the tomatoes. Here's how to proceed: Fill the pot with a pre-moistened blend of 1/3 compost and 2/3 peat-based potting mix. Plant several leaf lettuce seeds or small seedlings around the edge of the pot and a tomato seedling in the middle. Place the pot in a sunny, frost-free location. Water as needed to keep the soil moist, and fertilize once a month or as needed to encourage good growth.
Keep reading to learn about the many varieties of lettuce.

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Types of Lettuce

With so many types of lettuce to choose from, home gardeners will never become bored with this garden favorite.

Lettuce types are seperated into Butterhead, Cos (Romaine), Crisphead, Loosehead (Leaf) and Mixed. These varieties within those types are listed below.

Butterhead varieties:

  • Bibb, harvest at 75 days, has a delicate-flavored, dark green, open head.
  • Buttercrunch, harvest at 75 days, is an All America Selection with compact heads and a buttery texture; it can tolerate some heat.
Cos (Romaine) varieties:
  • Little Gem, harvest at 65 days, gives early, compact, and productive plants.
  • Paris Island, harvest at 70 days, is the standard romaine type; it has 10-inch heads and resists bolting.
Crisphead varieties:
  • Great Lakes, harvest at 90 days, produces a large, full head that will tolerate some heat.
  • Iceberg, harvest at 85 days, is compact with a light green color.
Loosehead (Leaf) varieties:
  • Green Ice, harvest at 45 days, has crisp, sweet, heavily ruffled green leaves.
  • Red Salad Bowl, harvest at 50 days, produces finely divided, dark burgundy leaves.
  • Oak Leaf, harvest at 50 days, is a heat-tolerant, deeply lobed, dark green leaf variety.
  • Majesty, harvest at 50 days, is deep purple-red.
Mixes:
  • Many mixed lettuces are now available. Summer Glory contains 7 heat-resistant varieties.
Keep reading to learn how to select and prepare lettuce.

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Selecting Lettuce

Lettuce is a vegetable that is best enjoyed when it's fresh and crisp. Avoid salad greens that are wilted or have brown-edged or slimy leaves. Once they reach this point, there's no bringing them back to life. They should have vivid color, and leaves should be firm. Store greens in your refrigerator's crisper drawer, roots intact, in perforated plastic bags.

Romaine is a produce-department staple, and it's definitely better for you than iceberg. Less-recognizable greens come in a wider variety of sizes, shapes, and colors, and some manufacturers pre-pack a variety of these delicious treasures in handy salad packs.
head of lettuce
Lettuce leaves should be firm and vivid in color.
Here are tips for selecting and storing specific varieties of lettuce:

Arugula: Also known as rocket or roquette, these small, flat leaves have a hot, peppery flavor. The older and larger the leaves, the more mustard-like the flavor. You're more likely to find arugula in ethnic or farmers' markets than in supermarkets. It's so delicate, it keeps for only a day or two.

Chicory: This curly-leaved green is sometimes mistakenly called curly endive. The dark-green leaves have a bitter taste but work well in salads with well-seasoned dressings.

Endive: Belgian endive and white chicory are names for this pale salad green. The small, cigar-shaped head has tightly packed leaves and a slightly bitter flavor. Endive stays fresh for three to four days.

Escarole: A close cousin to chicory, escarole is actually a type of endive. It has broad, slightly curved green leaves, with a milder flavor than Belgian endive.

Radicchio: Though it looks like a miniature head of red cabbage, this salad green is actually a member of the chicory family, with a less bitter flavor. Radicchio keeps up to a week.

Romaine: Also known as cos, Romaine lettuce has long leaves that are crisp, with an oh-so-slight bitter taste. Romaine is hearty, storing well for up to ten days.

Watercress: This delicate green is sold in "bouquets," or trimmed and sealed in vacuum packs. Choose dark-green, glossy leaves and store in plastic bags; use in a day or two. Unopened vacuum packs last up to three days.

Tips for Preparing and Serving Lettuce

Dirt and grit often settle between the leaves of salad greens. Separate the leaves, then wash well before using. For small bunches, swish leaves in a bowl of water, then rinse.

In general, the stronger and more bitter the salad green, the stronger-flavored the dressing should be. Try warm mustard or garlic-based dressings with strong-flavored salad greens.

Check out the next section to learn about the health benefits of lettuce.

Want more information about lettuce? Try:
  • Vegetable Recipes: Check out recipes that feature lettuce and other vegetables.
  • Vegetable Gardens: Grow a full harvest of great vegetables this year.
  • Gardening: We answer your questions about all things that come from the garden.

Health Benefits of Lettuce

Although all varieties of lettuce are very low in calories, they do not all rank the same in nutritional value.

Though Romaine provides decent nutrition, iceberg lettuce does not, so to make the ultimate nutritious salad, use plenty of leafy greens. Wonderfully flavored greens like radicchio, arugula, endive, chicory, and escarole make a salad stand out in taste and nutrition. Some greens back up their fat-fighting bulk with a decent amount of
fiber.

The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend eating about 2 cups of vegetables each day. It takes two cups of raw greens to equal one cup of veggies, according to the Guidelines.
heads of lettuce
Lettuce is very low and calories, and many varieties are high in nutrition.
Health Benefits of Lettuce

The darker the color of the salad green, the more nutritious it is. Beta-carotene is the chief disease-fighting nutrient found in the darker-colored greens. As an antioxidant, it battles certain cancers,
heart disease, and cataracts. A dark-green color also indicates the presence of folic acid, which helps prevent neural-tube birth defects in the beginning stages of pregnancy. Researchers are uncovering other important contributions folic acid has to offer to your well-being, like its role in the prevention of heart disease and inflammation. Most salad greens are also notable sources of vitamin C, potassium, and fiber.

Chicory is a good source of vitamin C, another antioxidant nutrient linked to prevention of heart disease, cancer, and cataracts. Some salad greens, including arugula and watercress, are members of the cruciferous family, adding more ammunition to the fight against cancer.

Nutritional Values of Fresh Romaine Lettuce
Serving Size: 1/2 cup, shredded
Calories 0
Fat 0 g
Saturated Fat 0 g
Cholesterol 0 mg
Carbohydrate 1 g
Protein <1 g
Dietary Fiber <1 g
Sodium 2 mg
Calcium 8 mg
Potassium 58 mg
Vitamin A 1,365 IU
Folic Acid 32 micrograms
Vitamin C 6 mg
Carotenoids 1,362 micrograms

Want more information about lettuce? Try:
  • Vegetable Recipes: Find delicious recipes that feature lettuce.
  • Nutrition: Find out how lettuce fits in with your overall nutrition plans.
  • Vegetable Gardens: Grow a full harvest of great vegetables this year.
  • Gardening: We answer your questions about all things that come from the garden.
This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.