In recent years on our Trials Farm, we’ve fallen in love with the mini or midi type of lettuce – smaller sized lettuce heads that can be planted densely to maximize bed real estate and that offer great flavor. A particular favorite is the Little Gem type, a mini romaine with the sweetness and soft texture of a butterhead. We like to plant our mini heads at 6” x 6” spacing to maximize the use of our planting area.
Have you seen Breen? This stunning mini romaine has pink-bronze leaves with lime green ribbing for eye-catching color contrast. The heads are slender and elongated. Rhazes is another amazing variety for color – deep garnet heads with lime green interior hearts.
Winter Density isn’t technically a Little Gem type, but we’ve found this variety to be well-adapted to closer plant spacing for producing dense, compact heads. It has good tolerance to both hot and cold temperatures and an attractive, dark green color.
The size and texture of these mini romaine heads make them particularly suited to open-faced sandwiches. Cut in half lengthwise and serve each half, dressed, as a salad. The dense crispness of the hearts makes this a lettuce that can hold up to a little heat too – toss into a stir-fry or use to garnish a soup.
Last winter, we over-wintered several varieties of mini head lettuces in our unheated high tunnel. The lettuce was seeded in late September and transplanted at the end of November. The heads were ready for harvest in April. In our zone 4 climate, most growers would be lucky to plant their first head lettuce in the field by the first week of April (under row cover), so this early harvest date certainly gets a jump on the season. And, by planting into 6 rows in our 36” bed and spacing the plants 6” apart, the number of heads we harvested was more than twice what it would have been had we planted at the spacing that we normally use for full-size heads; 4 rows with plants at 10” apart. We don’t sell at a farmers’ market, but I imagine that if we did, we wouldn’t charge quite as much for the mini-heads as for a large head of green leaf or Batavian lettuce, but we would comfortably charge ¾ of the price (despite being mini, the Little Gem types can pack some weight, and have a definite gourmet appeal), which means that at the increased planting density, we’d come out nicely ahead.
It’s not only the mini romaines that do well under close spacing. Several of the oak leaf varieties – Oscarde, Red Oak Leaf and Emerald Oak – make excellent mini heads as well. Many of our customers who sell at farmers’ markets say that their customers go crazy for the smaller lettuce heads, appreciating the “cuteness factor” and the fact that these heads can be used up in a meal or two, rather than getting slimy in the crisper drawer.