Butter lettuce has a slightly sweet, buttery flavor. Good quality butter lettuce will have fairly large, loose heads with thick leaves and even green coloring. Scratch the stalk and smell. A sweet or bitter smell means sweet or bitter flavor. (Photo credit: DK – The Complete Gardener’s Guide, 2011 Dorling Kindersley Limited)
As the weather cools down and the summer crops have all been put up for the year, it’s time to take a look at what we can do with the still-fertile soil in our backyard or community garden.
Lettuce can be used effectively in just about any meal and the numbers reflect that, with nearly 30 pounds consumed by the average American each year. Sadly, the most popular variety — iceberg — is also the least nutritious and not all that tasty But it sure does ship well.
Fortunately, the home gardener need not settle for whatever crop is going to survive a long trip by boat or truck. Planting what is best for the table instead of the shipping crate is one of the great pleasures of growing at home.
Lettuce is a powerhouse in the home garden. It’s easy to grow, it takes up little space and it can be used in more ways than you can shake a trowel at. Best of all, lettuce is a great cool weather crop. So when your summer crops have faded away or are just in the planning stages, this low profile plant will step in to keep the home garden rolling merrily along.
But before you toss that salad or add some crunch to a club sandwich, let’s take a look at the best choices for growing lettuce at home.
Commonly referred to as iceberg lettuce, this green’s name originated in the 1930s when the firm heads were packed in crushed ice for distribution. Because it is the heartiest of lettuces, it ships easily. This crisp lettuce is the most popular in the consumer market, despite being the least nutritious and least flavorful type of lettuce. Home growers may wish to consider other more vitamin- and flavor-rich varieties.
Romaine rivals crisphead in crispness and fiber and its vibrant flavor and nutritional content make it a popular choice among home gardeners. Romaine is rich in vitamins A, C and potassium and contains more than 10 times the beta carotene of crisphead. That is nearly as much as found in spinach.
Sometimes referred to as loose-leaf or green-leaf lettuce, leaf lettuce is nearly as vitamin rich as romaine and does very well as a sandwich topper and in tossed salads. Green leaf does not grow as a head like crisphead or romaine. This one is easy to grow, available in a variety of colors and textures, and can be harvested every few weeks. A good choice for new gardeners or salad lovers.
Also called “loose head,” varieties include Boston and bibb. Butterhead gets its name from its mild taste and buttery texture. Butterhead lettuce is thicker than other types of lettuce and is an excellent source of dietary fiber. Tender leaves make this a good choice for salads or other applications where lettuce is a prominent ingredient.
Bear in mind, eating lettuce fresh is not just the best choice, it is the only choice. Lettuce has the dubious distinction of resisting all forms of preservation. This stuff does not freeze, can or dehydrate in a satisfactory way.
Then again, with a long growing season and multiple harvests, who needs to preserve?
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