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How to Grow Lettuce
How to Grow Lettuce

How to Grow Lettuce

Lettuce is an easy to grow, cool weather loving, annual crop that should be included in every spring and fall garden. Learning how to grow lettuce is pretty straightforward, and these tips will have you harvesting an abundant supply of greens within one month, and full heads of lettuce within two.

Lettuce is one of my favorite crops to grow because it tastes so much better, and has a higher nutrient content than store-bought alternatives. A packet of seeds can produce plenty of lettuce for your fresh salad needs, and if you harvest from the outer leaves of leafy varieties – the plant will continue to grow, allowing you to recoup the cost of that packet of seeds in a short period of time.


Types of Lettuce

There are five main types of lettuce to choose from. Each has it’s own varieties depending on what you’re looking for in a lettuce. How much space you have and even where you’re growing it, also play a factor. The types are:

Leaf – leaf lettuce is one of the most commonly grown types. It’s also one of the easiest to grow. This type produces leaves along a stalk. One of my favorites is, flashy butter oak lettuce.


Cos or Romaine– romaine lettuce is typically used in Caesar salads, as well as on sandwiches. This type produces a tight, elongated head of leafy greens. Paris island is a long-standing, excellent variety of romaine to grow in the home garden.


Crisphead– these are the iceberg types typically found in grocery stores. They are one of the most difficult to grow, as they are adapted to most growing conditions and do not tolerate heat at all, making them excellent for a fall crop. It can, however, be difficult to avoid failure as a spring crop. Ithica is a great, heat tolerant variety that is slow to bolt.


Butterhead– this type grows into loose, small heads that have soft, tender, sweet greens. This type is fantastic in salads, because of the slightly sweet flavor it provides. My favorite variety is tom thumb, which is fantastic for small spaces.


Stem (celtuce)– stem lettuce is grown for, you guessed it – the stem, instead of the leaves. This type of lettuce is generally used in stews and some Asian dishes. Celtuce is a stem variety.


How to Grow Lettuce

This salad green is one of the easiest crops to grow, whether you’re using containers or sowing into a prepared garden bed – making it perfect for beginners, or people who have limited space. It’s also a very quick producing, economical crop to grow. Growing lettuce is simple if you follow a few simple tips.


When to Plant Lettuce

Lettuce is definitely a cool weather crop. It’s perfect for an early spring crop, and a definite fall crop. For a spring crop, you’ll want to start the seeds as soon as the ground is workable and soil temperatures are at least 40°F. Lettuce will germinate best when temps are 55-65°F and will take approximately 7-14 days to sprout up.

Butterhead, leaf and romaine types can be direct sown without issue. However, crisphead does best when you start seeds indoors, about 4-6 weeks before the last expected frost date or 8 weeks before your first expected frost of the year and then transplanted. You can also start any other variety indoors to jump start the season.

If you start your own seeds indoors, you can properly harden them off and transplant them 2-3 weeks before the last expected frost. However, if you buy nursery starts, it’s best to wait until the last expected frost date for the most success.

Lettuce does not do well in heat and will quickly bolt, so you want to get the growing off to a good start before the warmer days of summer come.

If you’re planting a fall crop, you’ll want to start it roughly 6 weeks before your first expected frost. Since most of us still have quite warm soil temps at that point in the year, you can cool the soil off by deeply watering the soil and thickly covering it with a bale of straw. Wait one week, and soil temperatures will be around 10 degrees cooler, making it more suitable for sowing lettuce.


Where to Plant Lettuce

Since it is an early spring or fall crop when the days are shorter than they are in the height of the summer, lettuce will grow best in an area that receives full sun.

However, if you’re planting in a particularly warm zone, a little bit of shade won’t hurt and can actually help the lettuce to continue growing before bolting (flowering). Once bolted, lettuce is very bitter.

Loose, cool, well draining soil, will insure a successful crop. Work in compost a week prior to planting, not only to increase nutrients, but to increase drainage. A soil test can help determine the pH of your soil to let you know if you need to add any amendments. Lettuce is sensitive to low pH, and grows best at a pH above 6.0.

Weeds and lettuce are not friends, so closely planting the crop will help smother out any potential weed issues. Another tip is to plant rows of chives or garlic between lettuce rows to help control aphids.


How to Plant Lettuce

Lettuce seeds are very small and require light to germinate, so you need to sow them pretty shallow. 1/8″ to 1/4″ deep is adequate…too deep – and your germination rates are likely to be lower.

When directly sowing seeds, you’ll put roughly 10 seeds per foot, in rows 12″- 18″ apart. However, once you’re thinning out the seedlings (when they have about 4 true leaves), the spacing you look for, will differ depending on which type of lettuce you’re growing.

Leaf lettuce seedlings need to be thinned to 4″ apart. Romain and butterhead varieties will require slightly more space, about 6″- 8″ spacing. The thinned out seedlings can be enjoyed as microgreens.

When transplanting out crisphead lettuce, you’ll want to space them with 10″- 12″ between each plant in the same 12’ x 18” row.

Make sure you water thoroughly when transplanting.


Caring for Lettuce

Mulching can help suppress weeds, keep soil moist, and keep it cool.

You’ll want to keep the soil moist, but not drenched. It should be well draining. You’ll know if your lettuce needs watered, simply by looking at it. If it’s beginning to wilt, it’s time to add a little water. Lettuce can even be watered in the heat of the day (unlike a lot of crops), without being damaged. It can actually help it cool off.

If the edges of your lettuce get brown, it’s from inconsistent watering. Simply water more regularly, and trim off the browned edges.

You can fertilize your lettuce about 3 weeks after transplanting (or sprouting) with organic alfalfa meal, to help keep up with it’s need for high amounts of nitrogen.

Bolting occurs when temperatures rise above 70°F and the plant sends up a central seed stalk. Bolted lettuce is bitter lettuce, so it’s best to harvest it before temperatures really ramp up – or find ways to combat it.

You can help combat bolting, by keeping lettuce covered with shade cloth. Alternatively, you can plant it so that other larger plants will shade it.


When to Harvest Lettuce

Harvesting lettuce is pretty straightforward, and it’s a little about personal preference. The crispest leaves are going to be harvested in the morning before the sun really hits the plant. Leaves are best when they’re still young and tender, but there’s no right or wrong when harvesting this crop. If it’s the size you want, it’s ready for harvesting.

Be warned though – allowing lettuce to mature too far, will result in a bitter flavor, that isn’t very palatable.

Leaf, romaine and butterhead types are harvested by removing a few of the outer leaves at a time, cutting the plant back to about 2 inches above the surface, or digging up the entire plant. When removing a few leaves at a time or cutting the plant back, you may be able to get a second crop in before temperatures get too hot, or cold.

Crisphead lettuce is harvested as the whole plant, and is generally harvested when the center is firm.


Storing Lettuce

While it’s not really known for its keeping abilities, lettuce can be kept fresh and crisp for a few days with the right tools. To stay crisp, lettuce needs a decent amount of airflow, so putting it in an airtight container or vacuum seal bag, isn’t recommended.

You’ll want to cut off the end and separate the leaves. Submerge the leaves in a large bowl of ice water. Then, drain the lettuce until it is left slightly damp. Store it in the refrigerator for 3-5 days in a colander or basket, lined with damp towels. It’ll stay nice and crisp that way.

Learning how to grow lettuce is fairly easy. In fact, it’s one of the easiest beginner crops to grow. Growing it twice a year while the weather is cool, means you’ll have plenty of fresh salad greens for a big portion of the summer.

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