Have You Heard of Mini Head Lettuces?
These little gems taste better and mature faster than full-size heads
There’s a lot to love about mini head lettuces, which are tender young greens harvested when they are about 6 inches tall and wide. Gardeners and farmers appreciate that this crop finishes quickly and takes up little row space. Chefs and home cooks are inspired by the little lettuces’ sweet flavor and tender texture. With mini heads, it’s easy to harvest just what you need—a single lettuce split in half will yield one or two salads, leaving no leftovers to decay in the crisper.
Over the past few years, we’ve been growing mini head lettuces at the High Mowing Organic Seeds trial fields in Wolcott, Vermont. Here are our tips for growing a perfect crop.
Choose lettuce varieties that are compact, upright, and fast-growing
Unlike most traditional head lettuces, which have an open, shaggy growth habit, a good mini head holds its outer leaves up off the soil and develops dense inner leaves early in its growth cycle. The small heads can be closely spaced, and since disease and decay often take hold where soil splashes onto outer leaves, a compact, upright lettuce will lose fewer leaves to waste.
Mini romaine types, sometimes called “little gem” lettuces, make great mini heads. They combine the best qualities of romaine and butterhead types. Their upright architecture comes from the romaine side of the family, but their tender, sweet leaves are more like those of a butterhead.
Another excellent choice for mini heads is multi-leaf lettuces known by trade names like Eazyleaf® and Salanova®. These lettuces are packed with bite-sized leaves that grow from a small central core. After a head is harvested and rinsed, all it takes is a quick cut to remove the core, releasing a perfect bowlful of salad greens. These lettuces look a lot like baby greens once the leaves are separated, but they are more flavorful and easier to harvest, clean, and store.
Proper timing and spacing ensure success
Lettuce grows best when daytime temperatures stay between 55°F and 75°F. Mini heads can tolerate temperatures in the 40s and even the 80s, but will struggle when the mercury stays above 85°F.
Unless you garden in a region with cool summers, the best time to grow your mini heads is from April to June or from September to November. During the milder months, your lettuces should grow rapidly, reaching a harvest size of 6 inches tall and wide about 30 to 45 days after they are set outside.
Starting your seedlings indoors gives you the ability to time and space your plantings to perfection. A 72-cell plug flat is the right size for starting lettuces about three weeks before setting them out. Use a tray with larger cells if you want to start the seeds earlier—you could even grow lettuces to mini head size in a 24-plug tray. Your goal should be to keep your seedlings from getting root-bound, which can cause growth to stall after planting. Keep your seedlings well watered, make sure they have plenty of light, and protect them from temperature extremes. Consider using a fan to improve air circulation in your seed-starting area.
After about three weeks in the plug tray, your seedlings can be hardened off and planted. Space your transplants about 6 inches apart. This is closer than the 12-inch spacing typical for full-sized head lettuce. Closer spacing will help keep your mini heads cleaner and more upright. It also will allow you to fit more heads into a small space.
Lettuces like plenty of water, but soggy soil can harbor pathogens, so be sure your planting bed is well-drained. Lettuces are heavy feeders; amend the soil with high-quality organic matter like composted manure. To help reduce transplant shock, water your seedlings well before transplanting them.
Lettuces can handle a little frost, but big temperature swings can cause stress for young transplants. If you are setting lettuces out early or late in the season, a floating row cover can help smooth out temperature extremes. Use the cover only as needed, because it will restrict the airflow that helps keep lettuces healthy.
While they are growing, mini head lettuces need about an inch of water per week. If possible, avoid overhead watering by using drip tape or by careful hand watering.
To harvest a mini head, simply use a sharp knife to cut the plant off at the base. Harvesting during the cooler morning or evening hours will yield a crisper, sweeter lettuce. Enhance this effect by plunging each lettuce into a bucket of cold water immediately after harvest, and prepare yourself to enjoy some of the best salad you’ve ever grown.
The Best Lettuces for Mini Heads
Mini romaines are tender and crunchy, while multileaf varieties offer loads of “baby” leaves.
Little Gem and Mini Romaine Varieties
- ‘Ansar’—bright green, crinkly leaves form a tight, star-shaped rosette
- ‘Breen’—red-bronze leaves with pale green veining and mid-ribs
- ‘Newham’—medium green with dense, blanched inner leaves
- ‘Pomegranate Crunch’—cherry red leaves, light green heart
- ‘Spretnak’—glossy green leaves, blanched heart
- ‘Rhazes’—garnet outer leaves, lime green heart
- ‘Buckley’—red oakleaf, dense rosettes of deeply lobed leaves
- ‘Ezrilla’—frilly, narrow, medium green leaves with deeply incised margins.
- ‘Hampton’—green rosettes of ruffled, oakleaf-shaped leaves
Mini Head Lettuces Go Great on the Grill
The dense, substantial leaves of little gem lettuces become even more tender and sweet when grilled. Simply split the heads in half, brush them with a bit of vegetable oil to prevent sticking, and grill over medium heat for 3 to 5 minutes on each side. For a gourmet touch, top with a slice or two of soft cheese when the lettuce is hot off the grill. Little gem lettuces work well in stir-fries or in any wilted salad recipe with a hot dressing.
Tom Stearns is the founder and owner of High Mowing Organic Seeds in Wolcott, Vermont.
Photos: Carol Collins