Lettuce varieties for January, new year, fresh start

Newly germinated lettuce seedlings. Photo Kathryn Simmons
Newly germinated lettuce seedlings.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Maybe you aren’t ready to think about sowing lettuce, but I am! In mid-January we sow a flat of four lettuce varieties, to become our first outdoor transplants. I like to choose four varieties that cover the range of colors and shapes.

Buttercrunch bibb lettuce. Photo Kathleen Slattery
Buttercrunch bibb lettuce. Photo Kathleen Slattery

I also like to choose hardy types that are fast-maturing. Buttercrunch green bibb lettuce is one of my favorites for early spring. One of the Salad Bowl lettuces, red or green, is also usually in my first sowing. The Salad Bowls are so reliable and productive!

Young Salad Bowl lettuce. Photo Bridget Aleshire
Young Salad Bowl lettuce.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

New Red Fire has become another reliable lettuce stand-by for us. It was suggested to me by neighboring Virginia farmer, Gary Scott of Twin Springs Farm. It is more of a leaf lettuce, and doesn’t really head up, although it can be cut as admittedly lightweight heads. And it works fine as a leaf lettuce, to be harvested by the cut-and-come-again method. We grow New Red Fire year round, it’s that adaptable and easy-going.

New Red Fire lettuce. Photo by Bridget Aleshire
New Red Fire lettuce.
Photo by Bridget Aleshire

After last year’s success with Sword Leaf lettuce, which I wrote about last May, we have added this variety to our list of favorite lettuce varieties. But if I start those four, I won’t have a romaine and will have only one red. We haven’t found many good full-size red romaines. Rouge d’hiver is a possibility, although I wonder if it would bolt too easily (it’s more famous for growing in winter). A better choice might be Bronze Arrow (it worked well last year and we were harvesting it in early May).

We expect/intend/plan to start harvesting heads of lettuce outdoors starting 4/15. Before that we will harvesting the lettuce in the greenhouse and the hoophouse.

As you see from the top photo, we grow our outdoor lettuce as bare root transplants, starting in open flats. I’ll write about bare root transplants next week. We find it an easy, forgiving method for many crops.  For now, I’ll just talk about the lettuce. We sow in 3″ deep open wood seed flats, 12″ x 24″. We make four little furrows by pressing a 12″ plastic strip (aka a ruler!) into the seed compost. We sow the seed, label it, cover it lightly, water, then put the seeded flats in our germinator cabinet. The first flat of the year takes about 9 days to germinate. According to tables in Nancy Bubel’s Seed Starter Handbook and in Knott’s Vegetable Growers’ Handbook available free online as a pdf here, lettuce takes 7 days to germinate with a soil temperature of 50F (10C) or 15 days at 41F (5C), and only 4 days at 59F (15C).

Once the seedlings are big enough to handle, we spot them out into 4″ deep flats (also 12″ x 24″). We have a plywood dibble board with pegs evenly spaced about 2.5″ apart. You can see the offset pattern in this next photo:

Lettuce seedlings spotted out into deep flats. Photo Kathryn Simmons
Lettuce seedlings spotted out into deep flats.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

We aim to harden off the lettuce for two weeks in the cold frame before transplanting into the garden beds with thick rowcover on hoops to protect the lettuce from the still-cold outdoors. To be ready for harvest 4/15, these seeds have to become full size lettuces in 88 chilly days.

We make a second sowing on 1/31. The intervals between sowings at the beginning of the year are long, because later sowings will to some extent catch up with earlier ones. Almost all crops grow faster in warmer weather (up to a point). We sow lettuce twice in February (every 14 days), then every 10 days in March, reducing the interval down to every 6 or 7 days by the summer.

As far as varieties go, we think of The Lettuce Year as having 5 seasons: Early Spring January – March, Spring April 1 – May 15, Summer May 15 – Aug 15, fall August 15 – September 7 and Winter September 8 till the end of September and our break from sowing lettuce.

Some of the early spring lettuce varieties will bolt prematurely here if sown after March 31. Examples include Bronze Arrow, Freckles, Merlot, Midnite Ruffles, Oscarde and Panisse.

Others that we like in early spring go on to be useful in spring too. All the ones mentioned as possibilities for sowing #1 are in this category, as are Green Forest, Parris Island, Kalura (three green romaines), Nancy and Sylvesta (two big green bibbs), Pirat (a red bibb), and Star Fighter (a green leaf lettuce)

Freckles lettuce has to be sown here before the end of March, or it bolts prematurely. Photo Kathryn Simmons
Freckles lettuce has to be sown here before the end of March, or it bolts prematurely.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

7 thoughts on “Lettuce varieties for January, new year, fresh start”

  1. If you would like to grow some absolutely spectacular and delcious lettuces, get some seed from breeder Frank Morton at wildgardenseeds.com. I had no idea there were lettuces that gorgeous in existence. Mirror-shiny dark burgundy oakleaf with green speckles, butterhead/romaine form blushed with lilac with dark purple speckles, sword-like dark burgundy Really Red Deer Tongue form streaked with green – the variety of shapes, colours, mottling/streaking/speckling, texture and finish seems endless! I personally will never be satisfied with boring green lettuce again. Mixed salads look like exotic flowers. I grew these for market this year as a salad mix and caused quite a stir, as no one else had ever seen anything like these. Ended up planting some in window boxes for folks as ornamental edibles. Really wowed the crowd with the Romaine Mix – 16 different varieties…these folks had never even seen red romaine before (hehe). I have some growing now in my little homemade winter salad garden and the reds and purples are even more intense in the cold weather…some are edging right up to black. And am sure they are more healthful with the dark pigment antioxidants.
    Wish I could send some pictures – they would just amaze you! And an important bonus, all seed is OSSI pledged, so we can use them to develop our own varieties.

    1. Hi Wanda,

      Yes, Frank Morton and the crew at Wild Garden Seeds do some amazing work. I do buy some of their varieties through Fedco. For us in the mid-Atlantic, northern varieties are great for early spring or even mid-spring, but then it gets too hot here, and those varieties bolt. The fall offers an opportunity to grow them again, once it has cooled down enough to get them germinated. Thanks for the reminder too about the OSSI pledge, an important step towards keeping plant genetics in the hands of the people doing the growing.

  2. Mr. Morton’s pacific northwest climate is also wildly different than ours in the far northern upper Midwest. That is why I was thrilled to find his seeds are OSSI (open source seed initiative) pledged…I can use his wide-ranging mix of sturdy genetics over time to develop landraces, rather than pure individual varieties, that will work here. Especially with our own climate fluctuating so wildly the past few years – last year we had our warmest winter ever while the year before had our coldest winter ever. And the year before that we had our wettest spring ever followed immediately by our driest summer ever. Things that have “always” worked over the past 35 years aren’t working so well anymore with such wild weather swings. Our Zone 5 designation used to mean half the time we had Zone 4 weather half the time and Zone 6 half the time. Now its ranging from Zone 3 to Zone 7…sometimes in the same growing season (or even the same day)! So trying to adapt by growing and saving seed from the widest possible range of varieties, to give myself the best chance of having “something” of each variety that will grow and produce well no matter what the climate is each season! Having and maintaining the widest possible mix of genetics should also insulate my operation from the danger of widespread disease outbreaks – such as The Irish Potato Famine, when everyone there grew the 2-3 “best” varieties…then paid the stunning price of famine when it was discovered that those varieties were all susceptible to the same blight.
    This also gives my itsy-bitsy little one-woman operation a profitable market niche for the unusual, new, wildly colored (therefore more healthful) and earliest/latest because I can’t compete head-to-head with the big mechanized operations with the same varieties as “everyone” grows.
    Trying for true sustainability sure keeps things interesting!

    1. Way to go! Do you have a website or blog or facebook where we can read more about your work and see photos?

  3. No, sorry, no online presence. I pretty much spend all of my time outside except when preserving food. When its too dark to garden or tend the livestock and orchards I am reading everything I can find on large-scale food production – your book, and Eliot Coleman, Barbara Damrosch, Carol Deppe, Gene Logsdon, Michael Phillips, etc. Have so much to learn about succession planting, rotation schemes, planning, seed saving and breeding. Would love to converse with you and send you some pictures, if you like…you have my email? Most everyone I know thinks I have gone completely overboard…why bother when there are grocery stores everywhere?
    Must admit, I am not a real market gardener – yet. It just sort of happened. I just wanted to figure out how to grow enough food for our extended family (and friends and neighbors) and just sort of got carried away by my passion for growing things (again…at one point I had 350 varieties of perennials, then switched to hosta and had over 300 varieties of those, and a couple water gardens with waterfalls and a stream). Although I have been seriously (ok, obsessively) gardening for 35 yrs., just started this large-scale food-growing three years ago, after 6 years of elder care for my bipolar MIL with Alzheimers and my 95 yr. old grandfather (at the same time – think really long Twilight Zone episode). Even my first year with a new garden, managed to grow far more than we (and the Nubian dairy goats and chickens) could use, preserve and give away…so ended up at the farmers market because I just can’t compost perfectly good food. Then doubled the garden size the next year for a wider variety of foods, and doubled the size again this year. And 10 fruit trees turned into 30+ (with 8 more ordered for this year) after we got a cider press and the berry plants went rampant so this spring have to move them to their new home…five 100′ rows. With the 50′ south of those going into asparagus, rhubarb and strawberries, and the 100′ north for grapes, hops, honeyberries, goji berries and sea buckthorn. And got a bit carried away with planting flowers for the pollinators… so now am also selling bouquets, divisions and extra transplants. Does this type of project ever quit expanding or slow down before you run out of land? (hehe)

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