This time of year at the farmers markets, lettuce is the variety queen. It comes in heads and leaves, reds and greens, crisp hearts and soft butter leaves. Over the past few weeks, I’ve spoken to farmers about growing lettuce, and what varieties they like.
Veronica Worthington, of Seaweed & Codfish Herb Farm in West Dennis, pointed out the differences between two lettuce, saying, “There’s two kinds of Boston here, an Optima and a Sylvestra. One is darker green. The Sylvestra is more of a lime green and makes a better head.”
Each year Worthington grows over 35 varieties of lettuce, and often has 2000 heads in the ground by late spring. She likes to buy her seeds from the Seed Savers Exchange, in Iowa, which she says has an excellent selection of heirlooms.
“This one here is a loose leaf called Red Rapids from Seed Savers of Iowa,” she went on. “And this is also from Seed Savers of Iowa - it’s a red iceberg and it’s magnificent. Check it out: it’s big. And this is one of the smaller ones!” She turned to another lettuce: “And this is Tango, which supposedly has a little bit more nutrition than the next lettuce, but it only grows early spring so you won’t be seeing that one again ’til next winter. [Here’s] Tom Thumb, a very old miniature lettuce. And down there’s one I breed myself, a red one. I’ve been breeding it from one seed I had for ten years now.”
Worthington’s lettuce is a loose-leafed variety with a deep, red mahogany color that makes you want to show it off in a salad.
When it comes to sheer numbers of red lettuce varieties, Barbara Dean of Cape Cod Wildflowers Farm in Orleans takes the cake. She sells five varieties of red lettuce at the farmers market in Orleans.
“Those are real names?” I asked.
“Those are real names,” she assured me. Her personal favorite is Outredgeous.
Outredgeous is a red Romaine prized for its thick, glossy, slightly ruffled leaves. The colors fade from bright red on the top to green toward the stem, and inside, the leaves form a sweet, tender heart. Dean also grows a green romaine. “These are Little Caesars,” she said, showing them to me, “which have a nice heart in them. This one is a Little Caeser. So you just cut that right in half and pour salad dressing on it and you’re all set to go. It’s a nice lettuce.”
In addition to the Romaines, Dean is also a big fan of sweet butterhead lettuces—the Bibbs and the Bostons.
Lucas Dinwiddie of Halcyon Farm in Brewster is more into the big heading varieties. He grabbed one to show me, saying, “I have the biggest red oak leaf head lettuce I’ve ever seen.”
“How’d it get so big?” I asked.
He smiled. “HGH: human growth hormone. That’s a joke! It’s funny, because they got kind of toasted in the greenhouse. I forgot to water, and I wasn’t going to plant them. I ended up planting them, and they’re just boosting. I companion-planted them with bunching onions. I don’t think that’s the reason for their size. I don’t know… [probably] just loving the spot they’re in.”