Try an heirloom you can eat

Meals back in the days of Gen. George Washington consisted of more than just meat, bread and potatoes.

There was a fondness for greens during the 18th century. Each morning, Washington ordered his regimental officer to gather leafy plants growing near the camp and distribute them among the men.

Wesley Greene, a garden historian with Colonial Williamsburg, likes to share that bit of information when he tells visitors about the heirloom lettuces growing in the demonstration Colonial Nursery on Duke of Gloucester Street.

"Virginians have long been fond of lettuce," says Greene. "Frances Michel, a Swiss traveler who is in the Williamsburg area from Oct. 2, 1701, until Dec. 1, 1702, records in his journal: 'The inhabitants pay little attention to garden plants except lettuce, although most everything grows here.'

"Peter Henderson, one of the best-known and most influential market gardeners of the 19th century writes in 'Gardening for Profit' (1867): 'Perhaps there is no plant of the garden that we could so ill afford to dispense with as Lettuce.'

"I think most gardeners would agree to this day."

This time of year, the Colonial Nursery is alive with the crispness of spring crops, including several heirloom lettuces that Greene collects through seed exchanges around the world. Those lettuces are documented in John Randolph's "A Treatise on Gardening," which was America's first garden book. Copies of the 1793-printed book are sold for $12 at the Colonial Nursery; you can also get seeds for Tennis Ball and Cos lettuces, along with other seeds and plants, there. Monticello offers Allepo and Brown Dutch lettuce seed through its online catalog at

Lettuce requires a cool season, lots of water and plenty of nutrients to achieve its best flavor and form, says Greene. He grows three crops annually, sowing the first in the ground in mid-August for an October harvest.

A second crop is sown in late September for winter eating. These plants are kept in a glass-covered cold frame over winter and are generally the best-tasting and longest-lasting plants of the season, says Greene.

In January, the last lettuce crop is sown in a hot frame, which is a glass-enclosed bed of soil heated with fermenting manure. In March, those plants are put in a cold frame, which is like a miniature greenhouse. The lettuce is ready for table in April and May.