The lettuce, especially the head variety, is a must-have in any home garden. Lettuce cultivation is, in fact, a practice within everyone’s reach, just by following the right farming precautions. Obviously, preparing the soil adequately is a priority, along with choosing the right periods for sowing and transplanting. We’ve already discussed the two most common lettuce varieties in our country, namely canasta and romaine. However, there are many other varieties that can be cultivated, differing in appearance, color, and cultivation period.
This article presents an overview of the main varieties available for home cultivation. Additionally, we provide useful tips on the care the plant requires.
Botanical Characteristics of Lettuce
The different head lettuce varieties belong to the species Lactuca sativa, a botanical family of Asteraceae or Compositae. Lettuce is a leafy vegetable typically consumed whole. The leaves are clustered at the base of the plant, forming a head called a heart. Depending on the variety, the heart can be more or less closed and compact. Also, the appearance, color, and shapes of the leaves change according to the type. For example, the color can be classic green but also red, pink, or variegated. The root of lettuce is usually short and develops a taproot about 20-25 cm deep into the soil, emitting numerous small lateral roots. Another common characteristic of lettuce is the oozing of whitish, sticky latex when the roots or parts of the head break. Its name derives from this characteristic (from the Latin word lactis). Head lettuces are annual plants, meaning they grow, flower, and produce seeds within the same year.
The Lettuce Cultivation Cycle
The lettuce cultivation cycle, from sowing to harvest, varies according to the variety. A complete cycle ranges from 80-90 days for early varieties to 120 days for late ones. The periods mentioned start from the sowing moment. If ready-to-plant seedlings from a nursery are used, the times become 45-60 days for early varieties and 80-90 days for late ones.
For cultivating lettuce in a home garden, careful attention must be given to selecting the variety. The choice is essential to match our tastes and avoid dissatisfaction. This is because not all varieties are grown in the same season and have the same cultivation requirements. At the same time, for those with little experience, experimenting with various lettuce cultivations can be interesting to have staggered harvests and learn the characteristics that suit us best. Therefore, head lettuces are divided into five main types:
- Classic Type, also known as Cappuccina-Trocadero
- Brasiliana, commonly known as Iceberg
- Batavia, to which canasta lettuce varieties belong
- Romaine, which includes all romaine lettuce varieties
- Open-headed (soft)
We have already discussed canasta and romaine lettuces; let’s now get to know the other varieties better.
This is the classic head lettuce with smooth or moderately bumpy leaves. Colors range from light green to intense green, with possibilities of reddish edges.
There are different types; here are the main ones.
Spring or Fall-Winter Cycle Type
- Winter Brown. It has reddish-green, bronzed leaves, producing medium-sized heads. Suitable for seeding in a seedbed starting from August.
- Four Seasons Wonder. Variety with reddish leaves and a bumpy texture. It’s cold-resistant and produces medium-sized heads. Sowing occurs from February to April and then from August.
- Winter Wonder. Variety with green leaves, resistant to cold, suitable for late sowings, from September onwards.
- Parella or Criolla. This variety has dark green leaves and a small head. It’s sown at the beginning of spring or in September.
- Trocadero. It’s the most well-known and widespread variety. It has green-blond leaves, producing a compact, medium-large head. Ideal for sowing from August onwards.
Summer Cycle Varieties
- Kagraner or Kagransommer. Variety with intense green leaves and medium-large heads. One of the best for the summer cycle; it’s sown in early spring.
- Summer Queen or Summer Wonder. Variety with dark green leaves and large heads, very resistant to summer heat. It’s sown from April to July.
- Sant’Anna. This variety has light green leaves and medium-sized, somewhat flattened heads. It’s sown in spring.
This type of lettuce is easily recognizable by the fringed outer leaves, more or less wavy, with colors ranging from light green to intense green.
The heads are compact, large-sized and in some varieties can exceed one kilogram. Another typical feature is the crunchy texture of the leaves.
For autumn-winter and spring cultivation, the most well-known variety is Iceberg, with a light green color. It’s sown in February or from August onwards.
Summer Cycle Iceberg Varieties
- Great Lake. Variety with more or less intense green leaves and medium-sized heads. One of the most well-known varieties of this type, with the characteristic of slow bolting. It’s sown in spring, from April to May.
- Ice Queen. This variety has very fringed leaves, with an intense green color. The head is large-sized. It’s sown throughout spring.
- Resisto. Variety with fringed margin leaves, very large and compact heads. It resists heat well and is sown from March to July.
Open-headed or Soft-head Varieties
Open-headed lettuces are becoming increasingly popular among small producers, both for their unique shapes and colors and their good climatic adaptability. All varieties of this type are suitable for spring or late summer-autumn cultivation. It’s best to avoid the hotter periods of summer. Let’s see the main varieties.
- Gentilina. Variety with blond-green leaves, bumpy but with curly edges. Like Iceberg, it has a crunchy texture. The head is open, of considerable size. Good resistance to cold and early seed formation.
- Blond Lollo and Red Lollo. These are two very popular varieties among enthusiasts for their attractive appearance. They have blond or reddish-violet leaves. They form open and curly heads, similar in appearance to curly endive.
- Radichetta or Friar’s Beard. Variety with elongated and jagged leaves, excellent hardiness. It forms a medium-sized head.
- Red American Curly. This variety has green leaves with red-brown spots. The texture is bumpy, with wavy edges.
- Trento Red or Drunkard of Trento, a variety formed by jagged and bumpy leaves, green-red in color, tending towards brown. If allowed to grow, it forms large heads, but it’s often harvested early, in spring or autumn.
Once the preferred lettuce variety is chosen, let’s now look at the main cultivation requirements that need attention. Generally, this plant prefers loose agricultural soils with a good supply of organic matter that doesn’t cause water stagnation. The soil’s pH should be neutral or slightly alkaline, avoiding acidic soils. Here’s where you can read about measuring your soil’s pH.
The soil for growing lettuce must have a good supply of completely decomposed organic matter. For this reason, it’s advisable to use mature manure, never fresh. If mature manure from organic farms is hard to find, pelletized manure (available here) can be used.
The alternative is the use of home compost or worm humus. The latter can be easily found here. The organic matter should be perfectly mixed into the soil and allowed to rest for at least 10-15 days before cultivation begins.
Irrigation and Other Cultivation Care
For cultivating lettuce in the family garden, proper watering is crucial, especially for spring or summer varieties. Hence, it’s recommended to use drip irrigation systems that conserve water and prevent dangerous water stagnation. It’s evident that in autumn-winter, normal atmospheric precipitation is mostly sufficient. Beyond seasons, the correct transplant distances are very important. Assuming the sowing takes place in a nursery, when the seedlings are ready (approximately after a month), they should be planted in the soil. The ideal distance is 20 cm between one lettuce and another in a row, and 25-30 cm between rows. Such close spacing has several advantages. Firstly, increased production per square meter, then the plants benefit from being close to each other, aiding in the closure and compactness of the head. Another advantage is reduced competition with weeds.
Keeping the lettuce free from weeds is essential to achieve healthy and vigorous plants. If continuous and laborious manual weeding is not desired, using natural mulching is recommended. Valid alternatives include jute mulching or biodegradable plastic film.
Biological Pest Defense
Lettuce is a vegetable much loved by numerous pest insects. For instance, snails are fond of it and can compromise the final result. To prevent them from damaging the leaves, traps can be used consisting of a container filled with beer, a beverage they find attractive. Once in the trap, the snails will drown. Alternatively, to keep them away without killing them, wood ash can be used, which, besides repelling them, also acts as excellent organic fertilizer. Other problematic insects for organic lettuce cultivation are aphids. These insects attack the inner part of the head, smearing it with honeydew and causing severe wilting. To keep these pests away from our young plants, the use of natural macerates is recommended, which provides excellent preventive action. The most effective in this regard are nettle macerate and garlic macerate, easy to prepare and distribute on the vegetation. For guaranteed results, natural macerates should be used at regular intervals of 15 days. Also, it’s best to use them in the evening.