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Field Guide: Lettuce


Field Guide: Lettuce

Laura Boyle April 07, 2014

Lettuce, Lactuca sativa: “The Garden Gem”

The Roman emperor Augustus erected a statue in honor of lettuce? Of course he did. Who wouldn’t?

One of our oldest cultivated foods, lettuce and its wild cousins have served humans for thousands of years as medicine, religious symbol, narcotic, virility booster, and kitchen delicacy. Emperor Augustus was in awe of its pain-killing properties.


Above: Photograph by Marie Viljoen. Lettuce is a cold-weather crop. See 8 Winter Garden Greens to Grow Now.

To procure your own salad bar in the backyard, try planting at least one or two of each of the four main types of lettuce: romaine, looseleaf, butterhead, and heading. An easy crop to grow, lettuce is a seed saver’s delight. You can pick from hundreds of heirloom varieties to match your lettuce to your climate, color preferences, and tastes.


Above: Photograph by Marie Viljoen.

Sprouted trout lettuce (shown above) is a tender romaine lettuce with speckles. A packet of Spotted Trout Lettuce organic seeds is $3.95 from Seed Library.


Above: Photograph by Emily Hall courtesy of Greyfield Inn.

Baby lettuce is harvested at Greyfield Inn (and headed for the dinner menu) on Cumberland Island in Georgia. See more at Greyfield Gardens: A Chef’s Dream on a Remote Georgia Island.

Cheat Sheet:

  • Ruffly leaves make it an attractive front-of-the-bed companion to flowers
  • An annual; hardy in all growing zones
  • Resistant to frost and can fill holes in the early spring garden


Above: Photograph by Kendra Wilson for Gardenista. For more, see DIY: Endless Cutting Garden.

Keep It Alive:

  • Prefers moist, well-drained soil.
  • Grows in both full sun or partial shade.
  • Bolts quickly in hot weather.


Above: Red leaf lettuce. Photograph by Jeanne Rostaing for Gardenista.

Lettuce seeds don’t germinate well after the temperature reaches 80 degrees, but luckily they don’t need light to geminate; start them in a cool, shady spot or in a cold frame. Plant in early spring, and keep planting in small amounts every seven to ten days until midsummer for a steady supply.


Above: Floating islands; garden beds of rare lettuces by French landscape architects Atelier Altern.

Are you planning your spring garden? Make a spot for Carrots. And browse our Field Guide for other ideas and growing tips.

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