January 31, 2011

Thinking big, and small, with mini lettuce

A photo of mini lettuce growing in a garden high in the Swiss Alps in the village of Mürren. The European consumer prefers these mini types, they are also the only varieties sold in markets there. 

I have decided to grow a garden of mini-head lettuce. If you wonder why Europeans like mini heads of lettuce, next time you are in your market, by one of these small heads which we Americans usually pass over for poly bagged mixes ( eew...washed in chlorine and tasteless) or for large over fertilized Iceberg heads, and find out why they are so preferred, the nutty taste and sweet flavor might convince you too. It converted me, and I am a classic Iceberg fan and not afraid to admit it!


An extra compact heirloom variety that Johnny's Selected Seeds calls Winter Density, is known in Europe as Craquerelle du Midi. Technically a Buttercrunch type, this head remains small, allowing for individual-sized heads that can be planted 8 inches apart.

I've been thinking about what to grow this summer since my space is rather limited ( at least in my raised beds). Last year in Switzerland, we noticed so many perfectly tended gardens high in the Alps, and it seemed that all had tidy, neat rows of mini lettuce heads and mini cabbages, which inspired me to think more European, and try growing these tastier, small varieties that they love so much. Sure, here in America, many of us were raised to love 20 ounce steaks, 5 lb cabbages and foot-wide genetically altered lettuce heads. Supersizing may work in the produce aisle at your local Super Wall Mart, but maybe it's time to down size a little. So this year, inspired by those Swiss gardens, I too am experimenting with mini-heads of lettuce. Besides, I think they will be pretty, too.


Dancine, a new organic mini-head lettuce perfect for 1-2 people. This variety was bred for greenhouse growing but it does well in New England gardens, and in the Pacific North West.


Rhazes is a new Little Gem-type of red lettuce that has a most color leaf, with both lime green and red. 
I am ordering all of these seeds now, all are from Johnny's Selected Seeds  ( as are these photos). I won't start them until the end of February which reminds me to mention the tricks, or shall I say, the facts on raising lettuce.

All lettuce is thermal dormant, which means, all lettuce seed is dormant at high temperatures, or very cold temperatures. Seed can be sown right in the garden as soon as the soil can be worked, but what does that really mean? It's simple. Lettuce seed germinates best at around 45 - 50 degrees F, and seedlings, if started in a greenhouse ( which you must if you want strong seedlings early) must not every experience temperatures above 75 degrees F. In the garden, you can sow seeds in March since seedlings can survive lows of 20 degrees F, but use pelleted seed since it allows you to space the seedlings better, and the pelleting material will broaden the temperature range that the plants can handle.


A lolo rosso type that is very popular in Europe, I think every garden in France and Switzerland grows this in the spring, and for a good reason, it is beautiful and tastes delicious. It doesn't ship well, so we rarely see this or other mini heads in the US.  I have to grow this variety even though it is not a true mini-head. Usually only found in high-end markets in the US, this is the variety it seems every garden in Switzerland had a row or two of.

Start seeds early in a greenhouse for a cool, bright room like a porch, sow the seeds in 3/4" cell trays and in 4 weeks, transplant into 2" cells using pro mix potting soil. The best way to harden off seedlings is to withhold water for 2 days and then subject the young plants to 3 days of cooler outdoor temperatures. Since the seedlings can then be exposed to 20 degrees F, one can start seeds 4 weeks before one plans to plant outdoors. I will start my lettuce on Valentines Day, February 14. Stay tuned to see how this garden grows as I document it step by step. I will also be growing mini-cabbages, to carry through the Euro theme.


Breen is a very compact new mini romaine that stays less than 8 " high, it is dense, crisp and resistant to many diseases. It's shiny leaves are stunning and flavorful in salads.


A fancy crisp curly lettuce so popular in northern Italy, is a must-have in my mini lettuce garden this summer. I can imagine all of the lettuce grown in a colorful grid or in rows. Just the right size for picking after a long day at work for a crisp, organic salad.

Bambi,a little gem type that forms the tiniest of heads. Can you say 'specialty market'? I adore the flavor of these tiny heads, much more nuttier than larger forms, and since they are smaller, you get more of the crunchy inner leaves if you make a salad with three heads. Since you can plant mini-heads of lettuce 8 inches apart in a grid, you actually can have a larger harvest from the same square footage.


A very glossy dark green ruffled mini head that is very crisp and tasty too. This variety is recommended as a mini-head type, and one that matures in 28 days.


  1. Anonymous7:59 AM

    Your new font may be good for print, but it is not very readable on the screen. I have to squint or zoom in read the smaller sizes. I would stick with a font that is optimized for the web, and not one for print.

    Thanks for a great blog nonetheless!

  2. I have seen some heads labeled as mini sold in groups of 8 at my local Costco. I just figured they were picked young. These photos are now intriguing me.

  3. I also am intrigued by these minis. Time to hit the seed catalogs I think. Thanks for posting about them!


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