Unless you tend a garden outside your igloo, chances are your lettuce started phasing out in June, maybe even before that. These cool-weather crops are usually the first in my garden to flower as air and soil temperatures rise with the start of summer.
But it’s almost August now, and the darndest thing happened: My lettuce is just starting to go off.
I have always felt that Mother Nature played a wicked joke on us gardeners — giving us bounties of juicy tomatoes in the summer, but none in the winter when salad greens are at their freshest and most abundant.
I grow a variety of greens for my summer salad fix (amaranth, radicchio, spinach chard, and several Asian mustards) and even tried to grow traditional spinach for a while under the shade of my grapefruit tree. While that spring-sown spinach hasn’t bolted yet, it also hasn’t grown beyond a few inches and a few leaves. Too much shade is just as problematic as too much sun.
Since there seem to be supernatural things happening in my soil (the tomatoes with a mind of their own, the overgrown broccoli, the mutant turnip…), I thought I would experiment with a new variety of lettuce, planted alongside my heat-loving red leaf amaranth.
Butterhead lettuce is usually known for being among the most heat-tolerant and bolt-resistant of all the lettuce types. Many lettuces can be successfully started from seed in early spring and harvested through summer, especially if you live in a mild summer region, but… Sometimes the flavor is lacking. Sometimes a heat wave will spur a flower stalk. Sometimes you have to shade your lettuce crop, or water more frequently, or sow a succession of seeds every other week because your lettuce keeps bolting.
I simply wanted lettuce that I can treat like any other summer crop, that will taste like lettuce tastes the other three seasons. No fuss, no muss.
I started Butterhead Speckles lettuce seeds in small pots outside, under full sun, in late May. The seeds germinated within a week and I transplanted the strongest seedling into the garden in June. My summer salad bed gets at least eight hours of direct sun per day, with the last light fading in late afternoon. The lettuce grew slowly through our on-and-off June gloom, but going into July, it seemed to double in size overnight.
The loosely formed head has several layers of slightly ruffled, bright and light green, red-specked leaves that are as tender and sweet as my winter-grown lettuce. I like to pick off individual leaves as I need them, and new leaves continue to come up steadily.
The lettuce is oblivious to the fact that summer is in full swing; in fact, it seems to thrive on these longer, warmer days. I water only once a week and mulch with straw. It has incredible heat tolerance with no signs of bolting any time soon. The leaves don’t even droop in the middle of the day, when the sun is harshest.
Our season has been temperate so far, averaging 75°F to 80°F during the day. In the fall, highs of 90°F or more are common when the Santa Ana winds sweep through. Our Indian summers tend to be the hottest and the driest weeks all year, and that will be the true test of the lettuce.
For now, my beloved Butterhead Speckles has earned a permanent place in my summer garden.
(Update: The lettuce lasted all the way through the end of September. Not a bad run!)
Here are some other varieties to try if your summer-shy lettuces have bitten the dust. If you grow another successful summer lettuce, please tell us about it in the comments!
- Bronze Mignonette – Excellent in hot climates, semi drought-tolerant, heat-tolerant, slow to bolt
- Buttercrunch – Semi drought-tolerant, heat-tolerant, slow to bolt
- Ermosa – Heat-tolerant, slow to bolt, resistant to tipburn
- Adriana – Improved version of Ermosa
- Fireball – Heat-tolerant, slow to bolt, resistant to bitterness
- Capitan – Heat-tolerant
- White Boston – Heat-tolerant
- Red Riding Hood – Heat-tolerant
- Summer Bibb – Slow to bolt
- Butterhead Speckles – See story above
- Gentilina – Excellent in hot climates, slow to bolt
- Black-Seeded Simpson – Earliest to harvest, drought-tolerant, heat-tolerant, slow to bolt
- Tropicana – Heat-tolerant, slow to bolt, resistant to tipburn
- Green Star – Heat-tolerant, slow to bolt, resistant to tipburn
- Salad Bowl – Heat-tolerant, slow to bolt, resistant to bitterness
- Oak Leaf – Slow to bolt, resistant to tipburn, resistant to bitterness
- Amish Deer Tongue – Heat-tolerant, slow to bolt
- Green Ice – Heat-tolerant, slow to bolt
- Grand Rapids – Heat-tolerant, resistant to tipburn
- Lollo Biondo – Heat-tolerant
- Red Sails – Heat-tolerant, slowest-bolting red leaf variety, resistant to bitterness
- Ruby – Deepest red variety, slow to bolt, resistant to tipburn
- Lollo Rossa – Heat-tolerant
- Red Fire – Slow to bolt
Batavia/French Crisp/Summer Crisp
- Nevada – Heat-tolerant, slow to bolt, resistant to tipburn (a name like Nevada is fitting — I’m a native Nevadan and the summer heat there is not for the faint of heart!)
- Teide – Heat-tolerant
- Concept – Heat-tolerant
- Sierra – Heat-tolerant
- Anuenue – Originally bred in Hawaii, heat-tolerant, slow to bolt, germinates at higher soil temps
- Minetto – Excellent in hot climates, slow to bolt, resistant to tipburn
- Ithaca – Heat-tolerant, slow to bolt
- Reine Des Glaces – Heat-tolerant, slow to bolt
- Summertime – Heat-tolerant, slow to bolt
- Great Lakes – Heat-tolerant, resistant to tipburn
- New York – Heat-tolerant
- Calmar – Heat-tolerant
- Jericho – Originally bred in the hot desert of Israel and known to stand up to some serious heat and drought, resistant to bitterness
- Manoa – Originally bred in Hawaii, excellent for hot climates
- Parris Island – Excellent in hot climates, slow to bolt, resistant to tipburn
- Green Towers – Heat-tolerant, slow to bolt, resistant to tipburn
- Sweet Valentine – Heat-tolerant, slow to bolt
- Forellenschuss – Heat-tolerant, slow to bolt
- Plato II – Heat-tolerant, resistant to tipburn
- Green Towers – Heat-tolerant, semi drought-tolerant
- Little Gem – Heat-tolerant
- Coastal Star- Heat-tolerant
- Rosalita – Heat-tolerant
- Craquerelle du Midi – Heat-tolerant
- Cimmaron – Slow to bolt