How to enjoy an earlier crop
Start leaf lettuce seeds indoors a month before your region’s first frost-free date, sowing two or three seeds in a six- to eight-centimetre pot, thinning to one seedling; a dozen plants take up little room in a sunny window or under lights. After a couple of days of gradual exposure to outdoor conditions, set three-week-old seedlings in the garden 20 centimetres apart. For a fancier patch (a kind of marbling effect), we always plant alternating seedlings of red and green leaf lettuces. A sheet of floating row cover provides extra warmth for uninterrupted growth. As plants grow, you can pluck the outer leaves, a few from each plant every other day or so for an early harvest; full-size bunches will still be produced.
Leaf lettuce cultivars to try
While all leaf lettuces have a loose, open habit, varieties vary dramatically in colour and leaf shape—experimenting is part of the fun. To ensure you’re planting leaf, rather than head, lettuce, choose from these types: deer tongue, Grand Rapids, Lolla Rossa, oakleaf, Simpson and salad bowl.
‘Black-Seeded Simpson’, for instance (a popular older variety whose baby leaves are ready in 40 days, maturing in 60), has abundant pale green, lightly crumpled, juicy leaves; these large, upright plants grow just about anywhere and tolerate heat, drought and frost.
In contrast, Lollo Rossa types are tightly curled, very frilly and attractive on the plate; examples include the light green ‘Lollo Bionda’ and deep red ‘Darkness’.
Seldom seen in markets, oakleaf and deer tongue lettuces are plainer and flatter, growing into low-spreading rosettes; heirloom choices include ‘Royal Oakleaf’ (light green), ‘Red Deer Tongue’ and ‘Amish Deer Tongue’, with a timing (as with almost all leaf lettuces) of under a month for baby leaves and around 55 days for full plants.
The long, indented leaves of the French ‘Brunia’ are olive green tipped with bronze red. An All-America Selection winner in 1952, ‘Salad Bowl’ is soft-textured and medium green; and ‘Red Salad Bowl’ is just that.
Widely available ‘Grand Rapids’, ‘Simpson Elite’ (both green) and ‘Red Sails’ are the kinds of leaf lettuces you see at the supermarket—but better a few steps from garden to kitchen than long distance in a truck.