Gardening 101: Growing Fresh Lettuce

Grow the makings of a delicious, fresh salad right in your own backyard.
Gene B. Bussell

The cooler days of fall are ideal for growing lettuce in the South. Whether you plant it in pots, raised beds, or your vegetable garden, you'll love its rich colors and textures--not to mention its great flavors. Curly, wavy, and frilly leaves in bright greens, reds, and browns will complement your fall flowers, such as violas or pansies. Bryan Benefield, owner of Red Rubin Nursery in Cullman, Alabama, grows thousands of lettuce plants every year from seed, selling them in local farmers' markets on weekends. "Customers love the idea of growing their own salad," says Bryan. They like to know where their food is coming from." And if you want to eat local, you can't get closer to home than your own backyard.

Take It From a Pro: Look for these leaves
Bryan says, "The best way to harvest loose-leaf types is to pick only the outer leaves near the bottom so the plant can keep growing. For romaine or butterhead, cut off the entire head."

'Rougette de Montpellier': Butterhead type with crisp, red-tinged green leaves and mild, buttery flavor.

'Galactic': Loose-leaf type with glossy, burgundy leaves and bold flavor.

'Parris Island': Romaine type with crunchy, upright, green-and-white leaves (named for Parris Island, South Carolina).

Secrets to Growing Lettuce
Plants: If you're a novice, start by purchasing plants that are ready to go into the ground or a pot. You can buy lettuce (Lactuca sativa) selections individually or as mixes. Don't plant transplants too deep. Water gently.

Seeds: More selections are available as seeds than as plants. Sow every few weeks for a longer harvest. When sowing, dampen the soil and then sprinkle the seeds on top of it. Cover with a thin layer of soil. Gently water daily until they germinate. Thin seedlings as they grow, and use them in salads. Always wash before eating.

Light: Plant your lettuce in a spot that gets four to six hours of sun daily.

Soil: Lettuce likes loose, well-drained soil that's enriched with organic matter, such as leaf mold or compost. For containers, use a lightweight potting mix. Be sure your pot has a hole in the bottom for good drainage.

Watering: Consistent soil moisture is important, so water regularly.

Feeding: Good soil will provide the best nutrients for your plants, but you can fertilize lightly if needed.

Climate: In the Upper and Middle South, get a head start on the first frost by using plants rather than seeds. In the Lower and Coastal South, you have time for seeds and plants. In the Tropical South, wait for late fall and cooler days to grow plants from seeds for a winter or early-spring harvest. Lettuce can take light frosts, but hard frosts can melt plants. Some selections are more cold tolerant. During cold weather, cover lettuce with garden fabric (gardeners.com) or put pots in a garage for protection. Or just harvest your plants before any chance of a hard freeze.

Looking for Lettuce? 
Visit your local nursery for transplants and seeds, or order seeds online: Botanical Interests, botanicalinterests.com; Burpee, burpee.com; Johnny's Selected Seeds, johnnyseeds.com; Kitazawa Seed Co., kitazawaseed.com; and Renee's Garden, reneesgarden.com.