This year, 2022, I’m going to grow lettuce like it’s 1957.
Until just this week, I’ve never had much luck, or for that matter, much interest in growing great crops of lettuce.
Oh sure, like any dedicated gardener, in early spring I usually sow a few rows of various types of lettuce. Then throughout the spring, when I remember to do so, I’ll cut some of the leaves for salads.
I rarely, if ever, get or let any of my lettuce plants form nice heads.
Of course, this is not how I was raised! My dad grew lettuce— primarily Bibb —and it would head up nicely. That’s because once the seedlings got to be a suitable size, he’d carefully separate them out and plant them out so they had room to grow.
How did I fall so far from my lettuce growing roots?
The answer to that matters not.
What matters is that inspired by the book This Hill, This Valley: A Memoir by Hal Borland (1957), I’m going back to growing head lettuce like it’s 1957.
No more lazy lettuce greens for me.
All the information I need to up my lettuce growing game is right there in that book in the chapter on the month of May.
“This morning she is out in the lettuce bed. She plants her lettuces in a small seed bed of pulverized soil and she plants them thick.”
I can do that. I have good pulverized soil in my raised bed gardens and I certainly know how to sow seeds thickly.
“As they come up, she thins them sparingly, just enough to give them growth room.”
This also seems to be something I can readily do.
“As they grow, she thins them almost daily, using the thinnings for salad: tiny lettuce leaves, chopped young chives, radishes sliced paper thin.“
I’m still on board. That little salad sounds delicious.
“Then on a warm, rainy day—the rain is essential—she transplants her lettuces, two dozen at a time, into ample space, setting them at least a foot apart each way. They grow like mad.”
The rain is essential, he writes. This leads me to believe the trick with transplants like lettuce, which seem to contain a lot of water in their leaves, is to keep them well-watered during and after transplanting. I’m taking notes!
“She keeps her seed bed going all Summer and transplants four to six crops, in succession. She has head lettuce from mid-June into October.”
No longer will I sow one ceremonial row of lettuces in early spring and forget about them. Not if I’m growing lettuce like it’s 1957. I’m now committing to growing lettuce all summer long. We shall see how that works out. When Borland wrote this book, they were living in rural Connecticut. I suppose my summer won’t get that much warmer than his did.
Now which varieties should I grow for my 1957 lettuce patch? Borland kindly lists the varieties his wife, Barbara, prefers.
“Of her lettuces, Barbara says, “You can’t buy Oak Leaf in the market because it bruises easily in shipping. But in the garden it heads nicely and has the tenderest flavor of all.”
First order of business was to find a good oak leaf lettuce, preferably one that has been around since 1957. This was not as easy as it sounds. Searching for oak leaf led me to several lettuce varieties described as oak leaf but not specifically named ‘Oak Leaf’. Finally, I decided on a red oak leaf lettuce, ‘Garrison’, and a green oak leaf lettuce, ‘Clearwater’. Both are from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. I don’t know when they came on the market but they’ll have to do.
“Penn Lakes head magnificently all summer, heads as big as cabbage and has a better flavor than Iceberg.”
My search for ‘Penn Lakes’ or ‘Penn Lake’ lettuce dumped me down several rabbit holes that led me to finally decide that Borland was probably describing an old variety called ‘Penlake’ which was an All-American Selection in 1949.
But before I found ‘Penlake’, I found another lettuce called ‘Great Lakes’ and wondered if that variety, which was an All-American Selection in 1944 was what his wife was growing. But once I found ‘Penlake’, I convinced myself he really did mean ‘Penlake’. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a single source for ‘Penlake’ lettuce seeds. Not one. So I’m going to grow ‘Great Lakes’ which I found at Botanical Interests. If anyone finds a source for ‘Penlake’ lettuce seeds, let me know.
On to the next piece of advice.
“Bibb, a Southern variety, produces beautiful little rosettes that I like to serve as whole individual portions.”
I haven’t purchased seeds for Bibb lettuce, yet. I should because this is the lettuce variety my dad always grew. However, finding seeds labeled plain Bibb hasn’t been easy. I think I’ll just look for something similar at the local garden center.
“Salad Bowl will head if transplanted and given plenty of room; it is the most spectacular head lettuce of all with its delicate pale green.”
After the frustrating search for ‘Penlake’ I was thrilled to find that seeds for ‘Salad Bowl’ are still available. I purchased mine from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.
“Deer Tongue is crunchy with a fine flavor and has become our favorite.”
Who knows if ‘Deer Tongue’ will become my favorite lettuce? I ordered some from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, so I will find out in a few months.
“I’ll chance Boston only in Spring and Fall; it’s apt to bolt or fire in hot weather.”
I’m going to admit, by the time I got to ‘Boston’, I decided I probably had enough lettuces for my 1957 lettuce garden so I skipped this variety. Who needs a bolting lettuce when there are other varieties less inclined to do so?
“Romaine, or Cos, heads all Summer long.”
Okay, one last variety. For this, I ordered ‘Parris Island Cos Romain’ from Botanical Interests. Some other sources say it dates to 1952 so Barbara Borland might have also chosen this variety in 1957.
“Most lettuce seems to head properly if transplanted in pouring rain and muddy ground.”
There’s that reminder again. Pouring rain. Got it. Muddy ground. Got it. I suppose if it’s time to transplant the lettuces and it isn’t raining, I can turn on the sprinkler and run it for a while before and after transplanting.
She also raises garden cress, which has the tang of water cress. And mustard which she picks as baby stalks to add to her salads.
I decided not to grow cress, mostly because I couldn’t find seeds from the two sources I narrowed down my search to. I did add ‘Florida Broadleaf’ Mustard seeds from Botanical Interests to my order.
That’s how I’m going to grow lettuce like it’s 1957.
(Note that links to the book and to Botanical Interests are affiliate links. If you click on them, then buy something, I earn a small commission and it doesn’t change what you pay.)