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Cut & Come Again Lettuce Varieties — The Difference Between Head And Leaf Types

When people envision a home garden or wistfully sigh at the pictures of lush gardens in magazines, they often think of lettuce. Not the bland, tasteless, colorless heads wrapped in plastic at the grocery store, but bright lime green, verdant deep purples, healthy burgundy, and crinkled dark shades of emerald green. The fantastic colors and thick textures of homegrown lettuce are instinctively known to us as something wholesome and nutritious. Our subconscious knows these are good things to eat. 

Cut-and-come-again lettuces are long-term producers fantastic for creating the opportunity to grab a basket and walk into the garden, picking and plucking here and there and returning to the kitchen with a salad as fresh as it could be. Often called looseleaf lettuces, they produce for a long time and provide amazing color and texture in the garden. 

Lettuce sometimes gives gardeners fits, but this is more often an issue with incorrect planting times or a lack of care (forgetting to water, for instance) than the lettuce itself. Growing your own offers the opportunity to explore the wide range of tastes, textures, and colors of varieties that number in the hundreds. If your dreams about blocks and rows of 'Black-seeded Simpson,' 'New Red Fire,' or antique 'Amish deer tongue' lettuces have you reaching for the salad bowl, keep reading.

Head vs. Leaf Lettuce

Peruse the lettuce section of a seed catalog, and you might be overwhelmed. Butterheads, oak leafs, heading lettuces, Romaine, and more. A simple breakdown to help classify lettuce would be heading vs. looseleaf varieties. 

The major difference between head and leaf lettuces is the plant's form when mature. While both obviously have leaves, head lettuces will form a more compact plant, with leaves tightly packed like a Romaine or an Iceberg. Looseleaf lettuces are free-form plants with an open habit. 

Head lettuces are suitable for a single harvest. In contrast, leaf lettuces are more suited for plucking a few leaves here and there over a more extended period. Looseleaf lettuce can also be harvested 1–2 inches from the ground and left to regrow a second crop of leaves, often several times. 

Head lettuces:

  • Compact head
  • Single harvest
  • Densely packed leaves
  • Slower to maturity

Leaf lettuces:

  • Open habit
  • Multiple smaller harvests
  • Cut-and-come-again
  • Quicker to maturity
  • Pick individual leaves or cut the entire plant

Top Cut-and-Come-Again Lettuce Varieties

  • 'Black-seeded Simpson' is a hugely popular variety for good reason. It's a heat-tolerant heirloom that has been grown for over a century. Its big, crinkly, lime-green leaves have a great sweet flavor.
  • ‘New Red Fire,’ as the name suggests, is a red-leafed variety with superb tolerance to bolting. Large leaves are green at the base and deep red at the edges.
  • Amish deer tongue’ is much tastier than it sounds! This heat-tolerant looseleaf lettuce sports long triangular leaves and is an heirloom variety well suited for repeat harvests. It has a more robust flavor to provide a bit of pop. 
  • If you can't quite decide, try our Heirloom Cutting Mix to get some of everything, a ready-made colorful salad every time you harvest. 

Growing Cut-and-Come-Again Lettuce

Growing looseleaf lettuce is straightforward, but there are a few things to remember. While lettuces can be directly seeded in the garden, you may prefer to start them indoors and transplant them as young seedlings. Lettuce seeds are tiny, and they can have difficulty breaking through the crust that often forms on the surface of soil exposed to the elements. 

Choose a location with at least 6 hours per day of sunshine for spring and fall growing. Summer lettuce beds will benefit from morning sun and afternoon shade to reduce the chance of bolting. Here's some help about what bolting is and how to minimize it.

The key to growing sweet, crunchy, satisfying lettuce is fertile soil and even moisture. Hot, dry, dusty soil will make lettuce bitter and likely to bolt. Apply some compost between plantings and use mulch to even out soil moisture swings and keep the soil cool. Water when the soil feels dry beneath the surface, but don't keep it soggy. It should feel cool and slightly damp. 

If growing lettuce in containers, make sure they have drainage holes and use a high-quality potting mix—don't use straight soil from the garden. 

How to start lettuce seeds indoors:

  • Prep your flat or seed starting container with moistened seed starting mix. 
  • Sow seeds on the surface, lightly pressing them into the media to get good contact.
  • Lightly cover with about ⅛ inch of starting mix or vermiculite.
  • Cover with a humidity dome or plastic wrap until they germinate to keep moisture in.
  • Transplant lettuce seedlings outdoors when they are about 1–2 inches tall and have several true leaves.

How to direct sow looseleaf lettuce outdoors:

  • Prepare the bed by working in some finished compost.
  • Smooth the surface and use your finger or a trowel to make a shallow trench, ¼ inch deep is enough.
  • Sprinkle the seeds about one inch apart along the trench, and lightly cover and press firm. 
  • Gently water the seedbed. Water needs to penetrate the top inch or two of soil, not just wet the surface.
  • Once your lettuce seeds have sprouted and started to grow, you'll want to thin them several times. The second and third thinnings can be tossed in your salad basket!

The final spacing of seedlings ready to grow into mature lettuce depends on variety but is generally about 8–10 inches apart. 

Harvesting Cut-and-Come-Again Lettuce 

Here's the fun part! Harvesting your lettuce is as easy as a stroll in the garden. For the best flavor, harvest immediately before eating.

  • Choose several outer leaves from each plant, leaving the inner leaves to grow. Snap or cut them off near the base, leaving an inch or two remaining. 
  • Keep going until you have enough, but leave any you won't eat right away. Keeping lettuce fresh on the plant is easier than in your refrigerator.
  • Shake off any bugs, and head indoors to give it a rinse.

Extending Your Harvest 

Once you've experienced fresh, homegrown lettuce, you'll want to have it all the time. While lettuce is primarily a cool-season crop, you can try some things to keep your salad supply throughout the heat of summer and extend it into colder weather.

First, plant succession crops. Lettuce will eventually get older and try to bolt, regardless of the weather—it's just part of the life cycle. To ensure a perpetual crop of young, tasty leaves, plant new lettuce about every two weeks. If direct seeding in the garden, move over a few inches and make a new row. If starting seeds indoors, start a new batch as soon as you transplant the current one, which makes for a nice rhythm. 

Hot weather can spell the end of lettuce for a while, but you may be able to change things up to minimize the impact. Once the hot sun of summer has arrived, choose heat-tolerant varieties and plant lettuces in shady areas, like under a bean trellis or against a fence that provides some shade. While lettuce in partial shade won't grow as fast, it will also resist bolting for a bit longer. Shade cloth hung from a couple of tall stakes can also help.

For many of us, lettuce season is ended by frigid temperatures. Lettuce can take some light frost, but consistent cold will slow and eventually kill it. Cold frames can extend your spring and fall lettuce crop, and in mild areas, may be enough for you to grow lettuce right through the winter. We've got a whole article about it for you right here to get you started. 

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