We have discovered over the years of selling vege seedlings that lettuce preference is a very personal thing, a lot like handbags and cars. They have to be just the right texture and colour and tick all the flavour attribute boxes. Some of our customers, notably a lovely young couple from Hamilton, verge on divorce when selecting lettuce varieties together. It seems that we have become marriage counsellors in assisting them with their choice - two Cos for her - she likes the crunch and two Four Seasons for him - he prefers the soft leaf texture and a bit of colour in his salads. Ne'er the twain shall meet, on their plate.
Another lovely customer - yes, we think all our customers are lovely - an elderly lady from Cambridge religiously buys two Buttercrunch every other Saturday for her garden. She enjoys the fact she can buy individual plants and grow them successively rather than punnets of six. She lives on her own so what need does she have for six lettuces all ready at the same time?
We are all at heart, creatures of habit when it comes to lettuce growing. Better the Little Gem you know than the fandangled new variety you don't and growing lettuces successfully can be challenging and frustrating - disease, too much rain, not enough rain, too much sun, not enough sun, too cold, slugs, snails, bugs, wild birds and errant chooks can all scupper our very best efforts for the perfect salad leaf. Even when Mother Nature in her entirety seems determined to put you off growing lettuce for life, we're really encouraged that most of you don't give up, because you are absolutely right to think (perhaps it's just gut instinct - pardon the pun) that homegrown lettuces are miles better, much tastier and heaps cheaper than store-bought hydroponic types, especially from an organic point of view. Although there is a mass of scientific information available for edible plant geeks to feast upon that can support my thoughts in this leafy realm, I generally rely on my taste buds and tummy to tell me what I'm eating is good, bad or otherwise.
Here's a snippet to humour any geeky readers though: Research suggests that lettuces grown in soil, as opposed to hydroponically, have stronger cell walls. This allows them to uptake and retain more nutrients, resulting in more goodness and better flavour, mostly sweetness as their Brix levels are higher. They also have a longer shelf life once harvested, because their cell walls are thicker and they retain moisture longer. It's safe to say that the majority of commercial hydroponically grown greens are fed with a cocktail of synthetic and natural ingredients in the water, although I do know of a grower way up north who makes his own hydroponic nutrient with organic comfrey and chicken manure from his property.
All in all, lettuces are undemanding plants - plonk them in the ground or a pot, water them regularly, protect them from the elements and bugs and in a few very short days you are rewarded with sweet, crunchy, soft, curly, flat, green, red, burgundy, pink or mottled edible foliage to compose any manner of delicious salads with - or ruthlessly stuff in a sandwich.
Follow these simple tips to growing lettuces successfully: Lettuce (any edible plant for that matter) is only as good as the soil it's grown in. Although it's a light feeder it will do better if planted into nitrogen-rich soil and in organic terms that's soil that has been enriched with plenty of manure-rich compost or following behind a crop of nitrogen fixing leguminous vegetables such as peas and beans. Do not allow lettuce plants to dry out, especially in summer. Wilting is a plant's sign of extreme stress which will kick its reproductive hormones into action, making it taste bitter and bolt to seed. During high summer, plant in an area that benefits from afternoon shade or cover them with shade cloth to prevent the foliage burning. When picking leaves or harvesting whole heads, pluck with your fingers rather than using scissors or a knife. This allows the plant to tear along its natural vein lines, making for a speedier recovery and reducing the risk of disease entering the wound. Plant a few lettuce successively rather than many all at once otherwise you'll end up with a feast and famine situation. Sown from seed most lettuces take between six and 10 weeks to mature. Many varieties can be grown year-round and survive light frosts. Just remember that they grow a lot slower during the colder months, which has as much to do with soil temperature and daylight hours as it does air temperature.
Here's a quick guide to some favoured varieties: Cos, also known as Romaine - an upright, crunchy green lettuce with firm leaves. Famously used to make Caesar Salad. Pick leaves as you need them or harvest the whole head. The pale green heart leaves make excellent scoops or spoons for dips and fillings. Buttercrunch - the most popular seller at Locavore, this is a large green lettuce with semi-soft leaves that fan out. It is sweet in flavour, offers both a soft and crunchy texture throughout the leaf and grows uniformly. Pick plentiful leaves as you need them. Little Gem - A miniature cross between Buttercrunch and Cos, mainly green but may sometimes have a red tinge to the edge of the leaves. Sweet and perfect, it's ideal for gardens with limited space. Four Seasons - My idea of a picture perfect lettuce, pale green in the middle flushing to dark red on the outside. Sweet and tasty, tending towards a French-style soft-leaf type. Drunken Woman - You've got to grow this just for its name! A pale green lettuce with flecks of red on frilly edged, soft and floppy leaves, it's perfect for salads with light vinaigrettes rather than heavy creamy dressings. Oak Leaf - available in red and pale green, the name describes the leaf shape. Tasty and sweet with a soft texture. Silvia - a burgundy coloured lettuce with upright crunchy leaves, it's the coloured equivalent of Cos.
Here's a word of advice when it comes to lettuce choice, if you are an inexperienced lettuce grower, have a go with lots of different varieties before deciding on your favourite. There are so many delightful lettuces out there that they all deserve a chance. What would life be like with a single variety salad all the time? Pretty dull, methinks.