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Revered for its delicacy, silky texture and pale green hue, tennis ball lettuce proved a favorite for Thomas Jefferson. 

The tennis ball lettuce variety — acknowledged as the parent of popular Boston lettuce types — boasts loose heads that grow up to seven inches in diameter. Planting directives are to sow the seeds of this prolific butterhead-type variety in rich, well-prepared soil. While early spring is ideal, it is also suitable for fall crops that may be planted in late summer. 

Plantings of tennis ball lettuce were first documented at Monticello in 1809. As one of 15 different lettuces planted on the grounds, it was celebrated by Jefferson for its hardiness and ability to flourish with a low level of maintenance. His notations of cultivation include “it did not require so much care and attention,” which likely accounts for the variety’s presence not only at Monticello, but also in the gardens at Tufton Farm and Poplar Forest. 

The tennis ball lettuce heirloom dates to more than two centuries ago, with the black-seeded variety first sold by American seedsman in the late 18th century. Today, seed packets can be found in the Shop at Monticello for those who would like to follow in the footsteps of one of America’s founding gardeners.