One of the easiest crops to grow in the vegetable garden is lettuce. Like zucchini, it is prolific and almost certainly will provide enough salad to share with the neighbors. It grows fast, and is a cut-and-come-again crop that will keep giving all summer.
There are four main kinds of lettuce, all good for salad and providing welcome variety, iceberg, crisphead, looseleaf and Romaine or Cos.
Of the four types, iceberg usually is grown commercially because it needs a long growing season with specific requiremants.
The coastal valleys of California are perfect for this crop and, because they also travel well, iceberg lettuces from that region are available across the country at reasonable prices. The flavor is bland and the nutrition content low, but this lettuce forms a good foundation for more adventurous salads.
If a home gardener is willing to try to grow this variety at home, it is best to sow the seeds indoors in late winter and then transplant in early spring into a well-prepared bed. The seedlings can endure some fairly cold weather while getting established.
They should be planted about 8 inches apart and will require regular and copious watering. It would be good to choose a partly shady site, maybe beside tomatoes or corn to protect from scorching sun.
At the other extreme, looseleaf lettuce is the easiest to grow. No head forms, but the leaves can be picked from the outside of the plant, and more will grow to give a long harvest time through the summer.
There are many varieties available as seed for direct seeding. A good plan for lettuce lovers is to prepare a bed in late fall with 2-3 inches of compost or manure on top. Then, in early spring, the bed needs to be raked over and the seeds scattered. Some thinning will be needed, but these thinnings can be eaten from their earliest days.
In hot weather, the plants may send up flower stems, and then the rest of the plant will be bitter, but it is possible to pull out the offenders easily. This lettuce comes in all shades of green and in red forms.
My favorite varieties are
oakleaf and black-seeded Simpson.
Butterhead lettuces are somewhere between these two types, with a loose head and thicker, generally ruffled leaves. The inner parts of the plant are blanched and tender.
Romaine lettuce is the tall variety that grows upright. The ribbed leaves are crunchy and sweet, and these types have the best nutritional value.
Lettuce will grow in most soils given moderate days and cool nights. Misting the leaves will help development in hot weather. Frequent watering may be needed, but lettuce does not like wet feet. The roots are shallow.
A few diseases may occur, bottom rot comes from muddy conditions and will turn the undersides of leaves brown and slimy. Downy mildew is the same fungal pathogen that hits other vulnerable plants and tipburn may show up as brown spots on leaf margins during hot weather and rapid growth.
None of these diseases will wipe out an entire crop, and this is a good reason to seed thickly and allow for a few losses along the way. Weeds will crop up and should be hand-removed to spare root damage.
Storage in a plastic bag in the fridge is good for a few days, but the season is long, and if you do run out, do what I do: Ask your neighbor!
Janet Del Turco is a local gardener and a graduate of the Ohio State University Master Gardener program. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.