Growing Great Lettuce – and The Best Spring Salad Dressing

After years and years of happy harvests, garden mainstays like heirloom tomatoes, squash blossoms and armloads of fresh herbs are as familiar as breathing, but every spring I get surprised all over again by the lettuces: how beautiful they are, how delicious, how willing…

And how different from the lettuce at the market, whether super or farmers.’ Being both extremely bulky and highly perishable, first class lettuce is a perfect poster child for home-grown.

panisse lettuce, forellenschuss lettuce

Panisse (left) and Forellensclhuss – one modern, one heirloom. One toothsome, one super-tender. Neither suitable for any but the most local commercial cultivation.

It’s an ever-changing parade, with overlapping performers. First come the mild, mid-green frills of Black Seeded Simpson, dotted around in self-sown clumps, offspring of last year’s late summer’s crop. Then close behind them the classics of spring planting, including our favorite: buttery thick-leafed Webb’s Wonderful.

volunteer black seeded simpson lettuce

Self-sown Black Seeded Simpson, being permitted to stay in place beside the tomato patch. It grows so fast we ignore Rule # 1 and just cut the crowded seedlings by handfuls until we’ve used them up.

Rule # 1? Thin the lettuce! Do it yesterday. Whether it’s fast growing spring lettuce or the slower summer types, plants that are free from undue crowding grow at a pace that promotes flavor and tenderness.

#2. Provide fertile soil and ample water but don’t get carried away. Lettuce that gets too much nitrogen gets big without developing flavor and is vulnerable to rot, a favored child of soggy soil.

#3. Choose the lettuce for the season. Any good catalog will describe its choices in terms of their resistance – or lack thereof – to heat. Craciovensis, for instance, shoots up quickly in a way that would spell inedible bitterness in most varieties. But it not only keeps its sweetness, you get the thick stem as a bonus. Anuenue, a crisphead from Hawaii, stays rock solid when temperatures climb, and if it’s less sweet than cool season crispheads it still makes a mean BLT.

Craciovensis lettuce and arugula

Spring-planted Craciovensis and rocket (arugula). Both will be shooting up shortly, at which point the lettuce will still be great while the rocket is no longer a leaf crop. Let it be, if you have the room, so you can eat the flowers.

The Best Spring Salad Dressing

When the lettuces are super-tender, mild flavored and sweet, the way to dress them is in cream, not olive oil.

Mince a small amount of garlic or garlic scape and crush it with salt in the salad bowl. Add a good glug of heavy cream, about 2/3 as much liquid as you’d be using if it were oil. Squeeze in not a lot of lemon juice. It will thicken the cream. Taste. Add more lemon if it’s insipid. Otherwise, in with the lettuce, toss and taste again. That’s it. The lettuce is a miracle. Don’t mess with it.

Another reason to Grow your Own. Conventional lettuce is on the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen List. It carries quite a bit of pesticide.

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3 Comments »

  • Susan Scheid Said,

    Lettuces are indeed a work of art, surprising in their beauty and lusciousness every year. Thank you for sharing some of yours with us. We (and me Mum) had many lovely salads as a result. (PS, you will see I’m back in cyberspace with a wacky blog of my own.)

    Welcome back to the blogosphere, Susan. Keep eating that lettuce; it will give you strength! (As Lois always says about lambs quarters, beet tops and similar cooking greens.

  • Tatiana Said,

    I tried to grow lettuce, but couldn’t gauge how much we needed, nor staggered the planting well, so it bolted. :) Good thing there are lettuces at the farmers market, although we seem to lack variety here. I’m definitely trying that cream dressing, the minute I get fresh stuff.

    Tatiana, please persevere! Staggering the plantings just right is a moving target, so the best bet is just to keep doing it every three weeks or so, spring to fall. This also takes care of the quantity question; if you replant frequently, all you need for 2 to 4 people is a four foot double-wide row – say 18 inches across. Getting the fabulous variety readily available from seed is definitely worth the effort. Dressing is great on super-fresh tender lettuces, may need just a spoonful of olive oil (no vinegar) if the greenery is on the sturdy side.

  • Cary Said,

    Can you recommend a favorite lettuce seed source describing heat resistance? Thanks for sharing the beauty of great lettuces.

    Welcome, Cary,
    Must confess having a “favorite source” is almost as difficult as having a favorite lettuce, but that said you won’t go wrong with my (personal) friends at Johnny’s Selected Seeds – http://www.johnnyseeds.com.

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