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Good-looking, good-tasting ... the "new" lettuces.

Sweet, buttery, crisp,- tender these words describe the wonderful taste sensations found in homegrown lettuce. And now you can grow some "new" varieties showing up in seed catalogs, specialty markets, and restaurants around the West. Many aren't really new; they're recent discoveries from European market gardeners, who grow them for both taste and appearance. But they're becoming easy to find adding new shapes, sizes, and colors to home-grown lettuce possibilities.

In the garden, these lettuces surprise and delight with their delicate beauty and unusual textures. Their leaves provide an interesting contrast among colorful annuals. As container plants, they make decorative additions to a deck or patio. Lettuce is also easy and quick to grow (for instructions, see page 202) and can be harvested over a long period if planted in successive batches. Through most of the West, now is a good time to start seed.

In warm climates, sow in a protected area and transplant when it's cooler. In the Northwest, start seed as soon as possible.

Lettuce for all taste buds

Lettuce varieties fall into four categories:

butterhead, crisphead, loose-leaf, and romaine. With all of these to choose from, there's sure to be one to suit your palate.

Butterhead (bibb). This lettuce is valued for its delicate, buttery texture and flavor. Most people are familiar with the supermarket variety, but like other lettuce types butterheads come in many shapes and colors, from pale green to magenta.

Depending on the variety, they form either loose or dense round heads that are small, like 'Tom Thumb', or large, like 'Merveille des Quatre Saisons'.

Although most butterheads grow best in cool weather, some 'Manoa' and 'Mantilia', for example are remarkably heat tolerant (slow to bolt and turn bitter).

Crisphead (batavian and iceberg). Batavian, the forerunner of iceberg, has looser, more crinkly and colorful heads than iceberg types, and leaves are sweet, succulent, and crisp without being watery and bland. They're also easier to grow. Harvest individual leaves or let them mature into soft, round heads.

With a few exceptions, you should grow batavians in spring and fall during mild weather. 'Red Grenobloise' and 'Antina' stand up to heat and cold and 'Anuenue', developed in Hawaii, is very heat tolerant.

Loose-leaf- Sometimes called cutting lettuce, this forms loose rosettes rather than heads. To extend the harvest, clip outer leaves as needed instead of removing the entire head.

This category includes lettuces in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and colors, from densely ruffled green 'Lollo Biondo' to the remarkably sturdy 'Red Oak Leaf' (also called 'Red Salad Bowl') with deeply cut leaves.

Loose-leaf types generally do best in spring and fall, although they can grow during warm weather if they're harvested before they turn bitter.

Romaine (cos). If you choose the right variety, homegrown romaine bears no resemblance to the leathery, strong-tasting heads at the supermarket. Leaves are mostly long and broad at the top, with juicy stems and tender foliage.

The heads may be loose or tight and come in many sizes and colors, from small, green 'Sucrine' and 'Little Gem' to tall, bronzy red 'Rouge d'Hiver'. Harvest young leaves or let the head mature. Romaines hold up better in cold weather than other types; some are tolerant to both heat and cold.

When you start depends on your climate

The best time to grow lettuce in most Western areas is early to late fall and early to midspring. Some types are more heat and cold tolerant than others. Also, much depends on your climate.

In cool coastal areas, you can grow lettuce year-round. In mild-summer areas, summer is fine if you start seeds in a shady area, then shade transplants until established. Many market gardeners grow lettuce during hottest seasons by covering plantings with shadecloth.

If your area gets only mild frosts, you can grow lettuce during the winter months by using floating row covers or hot caps. In the Pacific Northwest and mountain regions, moist weather and cold temperatures shorten the season.
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Copyright 1987 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Sep 1, 1987
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