7 Things to Know Before You Grow Lettuce
Lettuce is great for beginner gardeners.
The best path I know to successful gardening is to learn which plants are simplest and start with those. This route can be tasty if you focus on easy-to-grow edibles like lettuce. Unlike crops with large fruits that require months to mature, leafy greens start fast and finish first. In just a few weeks you can go from a packet of lettuce seeds to a plate of spring greens while improving your gardening skills all along the way. Here are tips to know before you grow.
Leaf Lettuce vs. Head Lettuce
The simplest way to understand the different categories of lettuce is to compare loose-leaf to head varieties. Leaf lettuces are further divided into green, red or oak types, while head lettuces can be either crisp-head, butterhead or romaine. The primary distinction between these two categories is that leaf lettuce should be harvested with the plant in place and allowed to rejuvenate several times, while head lettuce is typically harvested just once when the head is complete. Savvy gardeners grow a few types of both varieties in rotation to ensure there are harvestable plants throughout the season.
So Easy to Start from Seeds
If you have never grown a plant from seed, lettuce is the perfect plant to start with. A cool season crop, lettuce should be seeded directly into the garden or planter two weeks before your region’s final frost date. Sow seeds on the surface about an inch apart arranged in rows or grids and cover with a dusting of soil – lettuce seeds need light to germinate so don’t bury them deeply. About two weeks later, once the seeds have germinated, thin your seedlings by removing all but one plant every six inches for loose-leaf and every twelve inches for head types.
Rich Soil, Bright Sun, Ample Water
A moist, fertile soil in a sunny spot is the happiest home for lettuce plants. Give them a rich mix by adding compost or feed directly with a nitrogen-rich organic fertilizer like blood or alfalfa meal sprinkled around their roots. Fertile soil will also feed weeds, so visit your seedlings daily and pull out any intruders. Moist, but not wet, soil with good drainage is key. When your lettuce is thirsty it will wilt in the sun. Give its roots a drink right away along with a splash of cool water on the leaves to keep them happy on hot days. Use row covers to shade the leaves, and mulch to keep roots cool as the season progresses.
Spring and Fall Crops
Lettuce like it cool so for best results focus on growing them at the beginning and at the end of each season for a double bumper crop of delicious leafy greens. Start by sowing loose-leaf types. Favorites include Black Seeded Simpson, Oakleaf and Red Sails. Select a longer-term location for head varieties, like Burpee Bibb, Green Towers and Valmaine, as these take eight or more weeks to mature. Sow batches of lettuce two or three weeks apart to have a succession of plants. This prevents your plants from maturing all at once and will help avoid the new gardener’s lament that “I have more lettuce than we can ever eat!” Start the process again in late summer as the daytime temperatures drop.
Potential Problems or Pests
There are some pitfalls to growing your own lettuce, but don’t let that stop you. Fungal diseases can pose threats, but proper cultural practices, like growing in a healthy, living soil, ample sun and good air circulation will prevent most diseases. Aphids, slugs and cutworms call for specific methods to combat each pest. Ecologically minded gardeners plant chives among their lettuce to help repel aphids. Fight slugs by sprinkling diatomaceous earth powder around young stems or spraying with Bt, an organic safe bacterium that affects cutworms. When it comes to critters, good fencing is a must, but an even better way to keep them at bay is to grow your lettuce in planters or pots on your patio or deck.
Growing in Pots
The small size and shallow roots of most lettuces make them perfect to grow in the confines of pots or planters. Simply sprinkle a few seeds, or plant store-bought seedlings, in a garden pot and just a few weeks later you’ll have fresh crispy leaves for your spring and summer salads right outside your kitchen door. Get started by filling containers with a rich potting mix made from a blend of equal parts peat moss, perlite and compost. I sprinkle bloodmeal on the surface for added nutrients and to spook curious squirrels. Check your potted crops daily and water more as the plants grow larger and use more water. Harvest the same way as lettuce grown on the ground but take advantage of the mobility of your pots by moving them into shady spots as the summer heats up to prevent early maturation, which makes the leaves bitter.
Harvest and Enjoy
For the tastiest results, harvest lettuce when the leaves are young and tender, right before maturity, and definitely before they “bolt,” a gardener’s term for when leafy vegetables or herbs suddenly shoot out a flower stalk. The outer leaves can be harvested over time and the inner leaves allowed to grow. Or, trim the entire plant about an inch above the soil surface, eat what you take, then allow the plant to regrow. This technique does not work on head varieties like Iceberg or Great Lakes. Allow those to mature until their center is firm, then dig up the entire plant. For crisp leaves harvest in the morning before the sun hits the plants. Eat them fresh or refrigerate in a loose plastic bag. Renew wilted leaves by soaking them in a bowl of ice water for fifteen minutes. Spin them dry, and it’s salad time!