How to Grow Fresh and Delicious Lettuce in Your Garden
Lettuce is one of the most popular salad vegetables in the world. It is easy to grow, fast to mature, and comes in many varieties and colors. Whether you want to grow crisp head lettuce, crunchy romaine, tender butterhead, or colorful leaf lettuce, you can enjoy fresh and delicious salads from your own garden with these simple tips.
When and Where to Plant Lettuce
Lettuce is a cool-season crop that grows best when temperatures are between 60 to 70 degrees F. You can plant lettuce in the spring as soon as the soil can be worked, or start seeds indoors about five weeks before the last frost date. You can also plant lettuce in late summer for a fall harvest, or in a cold frame for winter harvest.
Lettuce prefers a sunny location with well-drained, organically rich soil. You can also grow lettuce in containers, raised beds, or among other vegetables. Lettuce has shallow roots, so it needs regular watering and mulching to keep the soil moist and cool.
How to Plant Lettuce
Lettuce seeds are very small and need light to germinate, so sow them thinly on the surface of the soil and cover them lightly with compost or vermiculite. Space rows at least a foot apart, and thin seedlings to 6 to 12 inches apart depending on the variety. You can transplant seedlings that you started indoors or bought from a nursery when they have four to six leaves.
You can also use the cut-and-come-again method for leaf lettuce varieties. This means you sow seeds densely in a wide row or bed, and harvest the outer leaves as they grow. This way, you can have a continuous supply of fresh greens throughout the season.
How to Care for Lettuce
Lettuce is a low-maintenance crop that requires little fertilizer or pest control. However, it does need some attention to keep it healthy and productive.
Water lettuce regularly, especially during dry or hot weather. Aim for 1 to 2 inches of water per week, and use a soaker hose or drip irrigation system to avoid wetting the leaves and inviting diseases.
Mulch lettuce with straw, grass clippings, or shredded leaves to conserve moisture, suppress weeds, and keep the soil cool.
Weed lettuce carefully by hand or with a hoe, as it has shallow roots that can be easily damaged by cultivation.
Fertilize lettuce lightly with an organic fertilizer such as compost tea, fish emulsion, or seaweed extract every two to three weeks.
Protect lettuce from slugs and snails by using barriers such as copper tape, eggshells, or diatomaceous earth around the plants. You can also handpick them at night or use traps baited with beer or yeast.
Watch out for aphids, leaf miners, caterpillars, and other insects that may feed on lettuce leaves. You can spray them off with water or use insecticidal soap or neem oil if necessary.
Prevent diseases such as powdery mildew, downy mildew, and bacterial leaf spot by avoiding overhead watering, providing good air circulation, and rotating crops.
How to Harvest Lettuce
Lettuce is ready to harvest when it reaches the size and shape of the variety you are growing. For head lettuce, wait until the head is firm and compact. For romaine and butterhead lettuce, harvest when the leaves form a loose head. For leaf lettuce, harvest when the leaves are large enough to eat.
To harvest lettuce, cut the entire plant at the base with a sharp knife or scissors. Alternatively, you can harvest individual leaves by snapping them off at the stem. Wash and dry the lettuce thoroughly before storing it in a plastic bag or container in the refrigerator for up to a week.
You can also extend your harvest by leaving some plants to bolt (flower) and produce seeds. You can collect the seeds when they are dry and store them in a cool, dark place for next year’s planting.
Growing Different Types of Lettuce
There are hundreds of varieties of lettuce to choose from, each with its own flavor, texture, color, and shape. Here are some of the most common types of lettuce and some examples of varieties you can try:
Head lettuce: This type of lettuce forms a tight head of crisp leaves that are often used for salads or sandwiches. Some examples are iceberg (the most widely grown variety), great lakes (a large green head), buttercrunch (a small green head with buttery texture), and red iceberg (a red-tinted head).
Romaine/cos lettuce: This type of lettuce has long upright leaves that form a loose head. It has a crunchy texture and a slightly bitter flavor that is popular for Caesar salads. Some examples are paris island cos (a classic green romaine), rouge d’hiver (a red romaine), little gem (a mini romaine), and jericho (a heat-tolerant romaine).
Leaf lettuce: This type of lettuce has loose leaves that do not form a head. It has a tender texture and a mild flavor that is versatile for salads and sandwiches. Some examples are black-seeded simpson (a light green curly leaf), red sails (a dark red curly leaf), oak leaf (a green or red leaf shaped like an oak leaf), and lollo rossa (a frilly red leaf).
Butterhead/loose head lettuce: This type of lettuce has soft leaves that form a loose head that resembles a rose. It has a buttery texture and a sweet flavor that is ideal for salads or wraps. Some examples are bibb (a small green head), boston (a larger green head), tom thumb (a mini green head), and four seasons (a red and green head).
Frequently Asked Questions About Growing Lettuce
Q: How long does it take to grow lettuce?
A: It depends on the variety and the growing conditions, but most types of lettuce mature in 30 to 60 days from seed.
Q: How do I know when my lettuce is ready to harvest?
A: You can harvest your lettuce anytime you want fresh greens for your salad or sandwich. Generally speaking, you can harvest head lettuce when the head is firm; romaine and butterhead lettuce when they form loose heads; and leaf lettuce when they have enough leaves.
Q: Why is my lettuce bitter?
A: Lettuce tends to become bitter when it is exposed to high temperatures or drought stress. To prevent this, keep your soil moist and cool with mulch and water; plant your lettuce in partial shade during hot weather; and harvest your lettuce early in the morning or late in the evening.
Q: Why is my lettuce bolting?
A: Bolting means flowering and producing seeds. Lettuce bolts when it senses that its life cycle is coming to an end due to high temperatures or long days. To prevent this, choose bolt-resistant varieties; plant your lettuce early in spring or late in summer; and harvest your lettuce before it starts to elongate.