Lettuce Varieties
PHOTOGRAPHS BY JASON VARNEY

Mixed Greens

April 23, 2015

Gardeners know this secret: We eat the best lettuce. The average grocery store displays three or four varieties, yet seed catalogs list dozens of tantalizing types—ruffled midnight red, copper-frosted, silky green, night-sky speckled—enough to keep a curious gardener like me busy for decades of springs.

Along with nearly endless diversity, homegrown lettuces offer serious nutrition (vitamins A and K, potassium, and iron) and vibrant flavor. Some varieties taste the way a spring morning smells; some harbor a tonic bite, an antidote to winter’s starchy monotony. Spring lettuces can be meltingly tender or refreshingly crisp. They’re lettuces with personalities that, over time, our preferences begin to curate, pairing flavors, textures, and colors before the seeds are even planted.

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Seed catalogs group varieties of lettuce according to their shape and texture at maturity, and learning the basic types helped me to choose an exciting assortment for my garden. Butterheads are tender with softly folded leaves. Romaine, or cos, lettuces form upright heads, and their leaves have crunchy ribs. Crispleaf and Batavian varieties mature to dense bunches or heads of juicy, succulent leaves. Looseleaf varieties grow in an open and fluttery fashion without forming heads.

I always plant too many at first, eager as I am for their swirling rosettes to fill the bare soil. Not caring what lands where, I sprinkle out a mix of my favorite seeds, thinning as they grow to give the strongest among them space to reach maturity.

When it comes time to pick a quick salad of spring lettuces, my work is largely done. From the garden’s palette I pluck leaves here and there until my bowl cradles a flawless composition: salad as still life, needing only enough dressing to make it shimmer. I keep the flavors minimal; a subtle yet satisfying white balsamic vinaigrette is perfect.

 

I’ll keep harvesting and eating successive plantings of greens through early fall. But my favorite time for lettuces is during spring’s cool rains, when the newest leaves sprout from seed and bring my garden back to life.

Check out 43 of our favorite lettuce varieties!