Lettuce is one of the most popular spring crops in the world. Thanks to its crisp texture and great health benefits, it’s a staple in salads and sandwiches. Instead of sticking to the boring old store-bought varieties, why not grow some of your very own lettuce in your garden?
My family and I consume tons of lettuce. Unfortunately, a lot of those bundles we buy at our grocery store end up in the compost bin. Iceberg lettuce is notorious for going bad quickly in the fridge.
After what seemed like the hundredth tossed lettuce head, I decided I would give growing lettuce a shot. Turns, it’s very easy! All it takes is some early preparation and planning.
What is Lettuce
Lettuce is a cool-season crop with a long history. It’s believed that these plants were originally farmed by Ancient Egyptians. Back then, lettuce plants were tiny weeds. Farmers cultivated the plants to grow bigger and ultimately used the leaves to produce oil!
Since then, lettuce has spread worldwide. It’s a staple crop with a huge market. In the United States alone, over 8 million pounds of the green stuff was produced domestically during the 2015 calendar year.
The most popular variety for production is headed lettuce, such as Iceberg. However, there are tons of other options for you to grow in your garden.
While it’s often viewed as a catalyst for other flavors, lettuce has a lot to offer in terms of nutrition. The plant is chock-full of vitamins and healthy minerals. It has Vitamin A to support cell growth, Vitamin C to improve your immune health, and Vitamin K to keep your bones in good shape. Lettuce is also known to improve your blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Needless to say, this crop is worthy of a spot in your garden.
What are the Different Varieties Available?
You’re not just limited to Iceberg lettuce in your garden. While this variety certainly has its perks, there’s a world of flavors and textures to try out! Here are some of the most common varieties available. These plants differ in the way they grow and the tastes they have to offer.
If you’re looking to try the easiest variety, stick with leaf lettuce. Leaf lettuce grows very quickly. Some cultivars are ready to eat after only 30 days.
As the name would suggest, these varieties are comprised of huge crispy leaves. There isn’t a head or central growth point. You can try out several cultivars to add unique color to your garden. Both red and green lettuce options are available. Some of the most popular cultivars are Tango, Slobolt, Grand Rapids, and Lollo Rosso.
Also known as Crisphead, this variety is similar to the Iceberg lettuce you’re familiar with. It has a thick head and is renowned for its crispy texture. Head lettuce tends to be a bit more sensitive to the heat. So, it’s best to plan these in cooler environments. Those in warmer climates can wait until the fall season to avoid any growing issues.
Some cultivars you can try out include Great Lakes, Crispivo, King Crown, or Batavian.
Sometimes referred to as Bib lettuce, this variety is similar to head lettuce. It has a tightly folded leaves, which resemble the structure and firmness of a traditional head. Typically, the centers of these plants are blanched white.
Butterhead lettuce is great for cold growing areas. It’s tolerant to low temperatures. Cultivar options include Ermosa, Nancy, and Boston.
Finally, there’s Romaine lettuce. Perhaps the second-most-popular variety next to Iceberg, Romaine lettuce sweet leaves and a distinct look. The leaves feature a central rib that’s a bit firm. It supports the long and slender growth pattern.
Romaine lettuce, which is also called Cos lettuce, takes a bit longer to grow. But, it’s very hardy and can thrive in environments where most varieties tend to have issues with. You should check out cultivars like Green Towers, Red Eyes Cos, and Valley Heart.
When is the Best Time to Plant?
Lettuce grows best during the cooler growing seasons. In most regions, this is during the spring and fall. Ideally, the temperatures should be above 40 degrees Fahrenheit. This is relatively low compared to other crops, making it an excellent early-season task to take on. Most plants do best once the soil has reached temperatures between 55 and 65 degrees.
You can, however, start your seeds indoors to get a head start. I recommend starting seeds up to 8 weeks before the last frost date. This will give your seedlings plenty of time to pop up before they can be moved outside safely.
These plants will not do well during the summer season. Excessive heat can cause the crop to start bolting, leaving behind a bitter and unpleasant taste. You should cease planting new lettuce seeds several weeks before the start of summer.
Luckily, you can resume only a few months later! Lettuce does quite well during the fall, ensuring that you have plenty of fresh crops throughout the year.
Where Can You Plant Lettuce?
Once your area starts to experience the right temperatures, you can start planning your garden. Preparing your site is key to helping your lettuce plants thrive, so it’s important to take some extra time to choose the right spot!
When it comes to sunlight, lettuce needs plenty of it. Choose a sunny spot that receives full exposure throughout the day. The sun helps to keep the soil warm while giving all those leaves all the energy they need to grow.
If you live in a warmer area, you can choose a spot that gets moderate shade. Light shade will prevent excessive heat and bolting. Artificial shading works well, too.
Now, let’s talk about soil quality. Fertilized soil filled with nutrients is ideal. It’s a good idea to prepare your soil a week before you sow into the ground or transplant seedlings. You can work the soil with a hand trowel to remove any large clumps. Then, introduce some organic compost.
The compost can introduce those all-important nutrients. Additionally, you need to ensure that the pH balance is just right. Lettuce prefers slightly acidic to neutral soil. Aim for a pH level between 5.8 and 6.5. If you need to raise the pH a bit, consider adding some lime to your soil during the preparation process.
In addition to making sure that your soil is fertile enough, you need to check drainage. Lettuce has relatively shallow roots. Unlike other plants where a deep root system is encouraged, we want all of the plant’s energy to go towards creating delicious leaves.
Loam is best for lettuce. The soil should have a sandy texture to promote drainage. Pooling water in slow-draining soil has been known to cause root rot, so don’t skip this step!
How to Plant Lettuce in the Garden
Now you’re ready to get planting! How you do this will depend on several factors. The first is whether or not you’re sowing seeds directly or using seedlings.
If you started your seeds indoors, you already have a head start on the growing season. Make sure that your seedlings are all thinned to one plant per pod. Ideally, you should start thinning the tiny plants once they have developed 3 to 4 true leaves.
Start by giving your tiny plants some time to acclimate. After the last frost, bring your seedlings outside for only a few hours. Then, increase the amount of time they are outside every day. This gets the plants ready to be exposed to Mother Nature and avoids shock. This process is referred to as “hardening.”
It’s best to plant lettuce in rows. This applies to seedlings and direct-sow methods. The rows make things easier to manage while giving your plants plenty of room to grow.
Dig a hole in your garden that’s big enough to accommodate the seedling. Gently place it into the hole and cover the roots with soil. Space the seedlings 4 inches apart if you have a leaf variety, 8 inches apart for Romaine lettuce, or 16 inches apart for a firm-headed variety.
There should be 12 to 15 inches of space between each row. Water your seedlings thoroughly and you’re good to go.
Sowing Seeds Directly
Generally, direct-sow gardening is preferred when it comes to lettuce. The roots are able to establish without any interruption.
Like with seedlings, it’s best to plant in rows that are up to 15 inches apart. The unique thing about planting lettuce seeds is that you can place them very close together. Most gardeners will plant up to 10 seeds every foot. Don’t worry, you’ll thin the herd later.
To sow the seeds, just place them in a slight divet. Then, cover the seeds with about a quarter to a half an inch of soil.
Germination usually occurs in 7 to 10 days in the right conditions. After several true leaves have popped up, you can start thinning the plants.
Remove some of the weaker plants until your lettuce is appropriately spaced. The spacing requirements are the same as if you were transplanting seedlings and depend entirely on the variety.
- Leaf lettuce: 4 inches
- Romaine and Butterhead lettuce: 8 inches
- Firm-headed lettuce: up to 16 inches
How to Take Care of Lettuce
Of course, getting your new seeds into the ground is only one piece of the puzzle. After you’ve completed the planting process, you must be vigilant about your plants’ care. Despite their resilience, your lettuce will only grow to its full potential if you take care of its needs.
While lettuce loves water, you need to be careful not to go overboard. The goal is to keep the soil moist. Because the roots don’t dive too deep into the ground, you don’t need to perform deep hydrations like you would with other plants.
Instead, water the plants lightly and frequently. A light every day or every other day should do just fine. Try to avoid
You can check the soil daily to ensure that your plants are always hydrated. Just stick your finger into the soil about an inch to see if it’s wet. If your finger comes out dry, your lettuce is thirsty!
Some gardeners utilize a drip hose. This a good option. Just make sure that the flow is low enough to not saturate the roots continuously
When it comes to applying fertilizer, less is more. Generally, you only need to provide fertilizer one time during the plant’s life. Use a slow-release fertilizer about 3 weeks after planting.
The fertilizer will provide a boost of nitrogen throughout the growing cycle. Stick with organic fertilizers if possible. One of the best nitrogen-rich natural fertilizers you can get is chicken manure.
If you are using an all-natural fertilizer, you may need to apply more frequently. Small doses every week or two are ideal if a slow-release product isn’t being used.
Weeds are notorious for hogging nutrients in the soil. Lettuce is particularly susceptible to the effects of a weed invasion because of its weak and shallow roots. Luckily, you can take care of the problem before and during the growing season.
Several weeks before you plant your seeds, prepare the soil. As weeds start to pop up, remove them by hand. Don’t cultivate the soil too much, as this could bring new weed seeds closer to the surface where they can germinate.
After you have removed existing weeds, you should notice that fewer weeds pop up in the future. For those that do rear their ugly heads, simply pick them out by hand. Exercise caution when doing this. Don’t use tools that could damage the lettuce roots.
Mulch is a great solution to many gardening problems. It works great with lettuce and doesn’t affect the growth of plants. You can use organic mulch to retain soil moisture, prevent weeds from growing, and protect the roots. Just apply a thin layer of organic mulch. Make sure to leave some space around the base of the plant to prevent any rotting issues.
How to Harvest and Store Lettuce
Harvesting lettuce is very simple. Not only that, but you can harvest the plant at many points during its growth cycle to meet your needs.
If you want to extend the growing season and harvest as much lettuce as possible, we recommend planting seeds every other week. The staggered planting method maximizes your yield and allows you to enjoy the fresh lettuce before it goes bad.
Lettuce can reach maturity anywhere between 30 and 100 days after planting. It all depends on the variety.
However, you can start enjoying the plant sooner than that if you want. You can pick off leaves and enjoy microgreens as soon as 8 days after planting.
To harvest full-grown lettuce plants, remove leaves or cut the plant at the base just before the plant reaches full maturity. Mature lettuce plants tend to take on a more bitter taste. So, you want to harvest before it reaches that stage. Just use your best judgment and keep an eye on your plants. You’ll know when the lettuce reaches its desired color and texture.
No matter when you decide to harvest, do it in the morning after the plants have received a bit of sun. This help
Sometimes, you can enjoy a second harvest. This can be done if you only remove the outer layers of lettuce plants with a head. Head lettuce and Romaine lettuce can continue to grow as long as you leave the base intact.
I always recommend eating lettuce as soon as possible. Nothing beats fresh-from-the-garden taste. However, if you must store the lettuce, you can do so in the refrigerator. Lettuce lasts up to 10 days when stored properly.
Don’t wash your lettuce before you pop them in the fridge. Instead, place them on a paper towel and let some of the garden water dry off. Then, place the lettuce in a loose bag. You can put the open bag in your crisper drawer to stay fresh.
What Pests and Diseases Affect Lettuce?
Lettuce is a particularly appetizing plant for pests. The large leaves tend to attract pests like aphids and slugs. They can suck away nutrients and leave your healthy plants looking less-than-ideal. There are tons of natural pesticides available.
Alternatively, you can try some age-old pest control techniques. Planting rows of chives or garlic between your lettuce has shown to be effective. Aphids hate those plants, so they’ll avoid the area. Meanwhile, a sprinkle of Diatomaceous Earth is great for getting rid of pesky slugs.
When it comes to diseases, one of the most common issues lettuce faces is tip burn. The edges of the leaves will turn brown and frail. It’s a condition that usually affects plants when you don’t water consistently. To take care of it, just snip off the bad bits and adopt a better watering schedule.
Fungal problems like White Mold are common, too. They tend to affect plants that are overcrowded or those that have poor drainage. You can remove some plants to improve air circulation around the leaves and prevent the disease from reoccurring.
There’s no better plant to start your garden with than lettuce. Not only is it easy to grow, but it provides a usable product that can improve your health in so many ways. Lettuce plants don’t require a ton of know-how to grow successfully, so there’s no excuse to not give it a try!
The first step is to find the right planting site and prepare your soil. Once you have chosen the varieties you want to plant and get your seeds in the ground, it’s smooth sailing from there. Before you know it, you’ll have a bounty of fresh home-grown greens to enjoy!