Because it’s not hard to learn how to grow lettuce, everyone should give it a try. You can grow it in containers, in a window box or tucked among the flowers.
It’s fast growing, and with a little planning, you can have a crop all spring and all fall.
Keep it Cold
It’s funny that big strapping pumpkins and acorn squash are delicate little babies and something as delicate as lettuce is considered hardy.
This leafy vegetable grows best when it’s cooler, with temperatures 45-80 degrees.
That means you need to plant your crop when it’s still quite chilly in the spring and/or in the fall, after the heat of summer has dissipated.
That doesn’t mean you have to go without fresh lettuce during the dog days of summer. We live in Texas and my house is air conditioned
Isn’t it great that you can grow lettuce in containers – in your house – all year round?
And that’s good because once you taste fresh picked, it will be hard you to go back to buying the stuff in the grocery stores.
Variety of Types Mean a Variety of Tastes
There are four types of lettuce and each brings a different quality and flavor to the table and each of them will be detailed below.
Loose Leaf is considered the easiest to grow. It matures in 40-45 days, but you can start thinning (and eating the trimmings) as early as three weeks.
Loose leaf is the hardiest in hot weather and also has the highest nutritional value.
Leaf lettuce has a stronger taste than iceberg, but most foodies agree that after you get used to it, you can’t go back. Iceberg is too watery and bland in comparison.
Loose leaf varies in color from red to green, with the texture either curly or “ruffle-y.” Familiar names are: Arugla, Endive or Mesclun.
Butterhead lettuce grows in soft loose heads that taste “buttery,” hence the name butterhead.
Sometimes it is called “loose head” lettuce, because the leaves don’t form tight, hard heads, like iceberg.
Boston, Bibb and Buttercrunch are the most familiar butterheads. They are smaller and tenderer than crisphead.
Romaine (or Cos) grows out of a tight central bunch, like an elongated head, straight up. It takes 70-85 days to mature. The leaves are cupped like a spoon.
Crispy and crunchy, the outer leaves are a dark rich green that turn pale as you get closer to the center.
Out of all the homegrown varieties available, romaine is the most popular.
Crisphead lettuce is more difficult to grow than the other varieties and it has the lowest nutritional value of all the varieties.
Crisphead grows in a tight, thin leafed head. It also transports and stores better than all other types.
The much maligned iceberg growing happily in the earth
Iceberg is the quintessential Crisphead. Personally, I think iceberg gets a bum rap and it’s become unfashionable to even admit that you like it.
If it wasn’t for the much maligned iceberg, those of us who grew up in the city up until the “Foodie” revolution took off in the early 2000s would never have known a salad.
A Jump Start
With most of the tender crops grown in the home garden, you start seeds indoors as you wait for the ground to warm up.
It’s the opposite for lettuce.
This leafy plant grows best in cool weather, so it’s best to have some seedlings to plant as soon as the soil is dry enough and thawed enough to rake.
Lettuce is most productive if the soil has a pH around 6-7. Fill a flat with a rich, humus soil that has excellent drainage.
Whether sowing directly into the garden or starting seeds inside, plant the seeds ¼”-½” deep.
The seeds are very tiny and hard to handle, but try to get 4″-5″ between each seed. Don’t worry too much about spacing as you can always eat the “thinnings.”
Plant a new batch every 10-14 days so you will have plenty as long as the season stays cool.
Cover your seeds with a fine layer of soil and firm gently with the palm of your hand, to ensure contact between seed and soil. Water carefully. Keep the soil moist until germination.
Cover the flat with saran wrap until the shoots start peeking through the soil. Don’t transplant until your seedlings have one set of “true leaves.”
As your seedlings grow, continue to water them with care. A spray bottle with a fine mister works great while they’re still inside.
The secret for rapid growth is frequent, light watering and giving each plant plenty of room.
When you transplant leaf, butterhead and romaine, try to keep the seedlings about 8″ apart. Crisphead needs about 10″-12″ between seedlings.
When it’s time to transplant the seedlings, dig a small hole with your trowel. Work in a healthy dose of rich compost.
Dribble water into the hole until it’s very mucky.
Using a pencil or a pointy stick, lift the seedling from the flat, taking as much of the planting mix that you can.
Carefully hold the little guy with his leafs above the soil line and his roots in the hole, and push more soil around the roots. Using both hands, firm the seedling in.
Mulching your seedlings will help keep their roots cool as well as cut down on weeds.
Lettuce has shallow root systems, so be careful when you’re cultivating around them or pulling weeds.
The Care and Feeding of a Salad
Over-watering to the point of sogginess can lead to disease. Once your seedlings are established, lettuce needs water when the leaves start to wilt.
Frequent and light waterings are best. Many gardeners love to utilize a soaker hose.
Add nitrogen rich fertilizer, such as fish emulsion for leaf growth. Fish emulsion along with a mixture of kelp is also packaged and sold via Amazon as a concentrate as the photo below alludes to.
A layer of clean sand spread around the base of the plant will prevent the leaves from coming into contact with the damp soil. This is a great preventative measure against lettuce rot.
The hotter it gets, the bitterer your leaves will become. If it gets too hot and your lettuce hasn’t reached maturity, try shading the plants.
Shading your plants will help your production last longer into the summer.
If it gets too hot, your head-type lettuce won’t form heads.
The heat may cause your plants to “bolt” or go to seed. If that happens, harvest immediately and salvage what you can of the leaves.
Fighting Pests and Disease
The most common pest that will bug your lettuce (pun intended) is aphids. However, there are others that are just as loathsome, especially when the weather warms.
Keep your eyes open for: flea beetles, leaf hoppers, leaf miners, cabbage worms, loopers, army worms and slugs.
The problem with pesticides is that the leaves absorb anything you spray on them.
Making your own organic pesticide could be a solution and/or encouraging the proliferation of beneficial insects that hunt and eat these little suckers (and yes, some of the bad bugs literally suck).
Your enemy – the aphid
Lettuce can also be afflicted with sclerotinia and mildew. Again, healthy, well-draining soil with plenty of room between plants to allow for air circulation is the best prevention against those types of diseases.
Just in case, here’s a link to a simple organic fungicide that can be made from things you probably have in your kitchen.
Another common affliction includes Tip Burn which causes the edges of the leaves to “die back.” It’s caused by a change in the moisture.
The leaves are still edible, just clip off the Tip Burn and salvage the rest. There are some cultivars that are resistant to Tip Burn.
Leaf lettuce grows up a single stalk and the outer leaves are harvested with scissors or a sharp knife, 1″-2″ above the ground. The stalk will produce more leaves which you can continue to eat.
Harvest “head” type varieties as soon as the head is developed but before the leaves turn brown. Butterhead, crisphead, and romaine are cut from their roots at ground level.
Romaine being harvest by cutting at ground level
Wrap freshly cut UNWASHED leaves lightly in plastic wrap and store in coldest part of your refrigerator for 1-2 days if necessary.
Or, wash it, dry it and then wrap it loosely in paper towels, and then place it either in an open Ziploc bag or a bowl.
Once you learn how to grow lettuce AND you understand just how good it can really taste, you’ll probably turn into a little bit of a “lettuce snob.”
That means you won’t need a “loaded” salad anymore. Just the leaves with an excellent vinaigrette dressing such as my favorite recipe will be enough:
Miss Bee’s Sublime Vinaigrette:
- 3 tablespoons lime juice
- 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon minced onions or shallots
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Combine ingredients in a small jar, shake well and enjoy.