Whether you have a large garden or simply a few planters on your back patio, no garden is complete without some homegrown lettuce. Due to its compact size and shallow root system, lettuce is ideal for container gardens and interplanting. Not only that, but because they are fast and easy to grow, even beginning gardens will have no trouble producing an abundant lettuce harvest just by following a few simple steps.
Lettuce is a cool season crop that grows best in spring and fall. Seeds can be started indoors or sown directly in your garden up to four weeks before your last frost date. Lettuce seeds will germinate at temperatures as low as 40° F; however, temperatures between 60 and 65° F are ideal. If you are directly sowing your seeds, floating row covers can help prevent damage due to cool temperatures and frost.
When selecting your location, choose an area with fertile, well-drained soil that receives between six and eight hours of direct sun daily. Lettuce can also be grown in partial shade, which can help prevent bolting when temperatures rise. Before planting your seeds, prep your soil by mixing in an inch or two of compost or other rich organic matter and check that your soil pH is between 6.0 and 7.0. If you’re growing heading lettuce, such as romaine, sow seeds 2” apart in rows, allowing for at least 12” between rows. Because lettuce requires light to germinate, seeds should only be loosely covered with soil. After germination, thin lettuce seedlings to 6 to 18” apart depending on the variety. For baby lettuce, plants can be planted in more tightly packed bands throughout your garden beds. After planting, apply a thin layer of mulch to prevent weeds.
Throughout the growing season it is important that your lettuce plants receive consistent moisture to ensure tender leaves and mild flavor. Drought or heat stress can cause plants to bolt, which will result in a bitter and unpleasant harvest. A good rule of thumb is to thoroughly water your lettuce crop when the top 1” of soil is dry to the touch. For a continual harvest, succession plant lettuce every two to three weeks from mid-spring to early summer. After the summer heat begins to dwindle, sow the seeds for your autumn lettuce crop up to four weeks before your first frost date.
If you properly amended your soil with compost before planting, fast-growing lettuce generally will not need fertilizing throughout the growing season; however, a slow-release organic fertilizer can increase your harvest. Tasty lettuce plants tend toattract pests such as aphids, slugs and deer, so gardeners should be on the lookout for plant damage. Aphid and slug populations can be managed with organic pest control options such as diatomaceous earth and physical removal. Fencing, floating row covers and cloches work well against larger pests like deer and rabbits.
Your lettuce crop is ready to harvest when leaves are large enough to eat. For baby lettuce, pick individual leaves and whole plants when they are adequately sized. For larger looseleaf and heading varieties, harvest outer leaves as they grow or harvest the entire head by cutting the stalk 1” above the soil line.
To save lettuce seeds, choose only heirloom or open-pollinated varieties and allow them to fully bolt. Once the flower heads are dry and fluffy, shake the flowers into paper bags, remove the fluff and other extraneous plant material and store the seeds in a cool dry, place. If you’re growing more than one lettuce variety at a time, prevent cross-pollination by covering plants with plastic bags or floating row covers before they bolt.
When you’re ready to start planning your spring lettuce patch, take a look at some of our favorite lettuce varieties thatare sure to enliven your garden beds and salad bowls with great color and flavor. Our Lolla Rosso dark leaf lettuce, named for its curled and deeply-hued red leaves, works well as a baby lettuce and is known for its mild flavor, bold color and slowness to bolt. With ruffled, bronze-tinged leaves, our Bronze Mignonette butterhead lettuce is another stunner that is tolerant to warmer temperatures, retaining its buttery flavor long after other varieties have bolted. For a tried-and-true classic, try our oakleaf lettuce, whose red and green leaves can be grown as leaf lettuce or as full-sized heads.