Equally at home in the vegetable garden, containers, or flower border, lettuce presents garden-fresh flavors and jewel-like colors that money just can't buy. And no produce market can match the freshness and variety of lettuce that you can grow in your own backyard.
How To Grow Lettuce
From early spring straight into summertime, lettuce grows fast and flavorful. Choose a location that receives direct sunlight for a minimum of four to six hours. Lettuce requires rich, well-drained soil. Amend clay soils with compost or finely ground bark.
The most economical way to obtain the greatest variety of selections is to grow lettuce from seeds. Purchased transplants are faster, but your choices may be fewer.
Lettuce seeds germinate best in cool soil. If you want to be sure to get the earliest harvest possible, start two to four weeks before the last expected frost. That's February in the Middle South and March in the Upper South. Lower and Coastal South gardeners can grow lettuce all winter, beginning with the first planting in October.
Seeds are inexpensive, so sow them every two to three weeks in different beds. In the years that you don't get a hard freeze, you will have an early crop. The taste of the first homegrown salad of the season is a lot like the first ripe tomato of summer. It's a long-awaited treat.
Remember to start with the more cold-tolerant lettuce selections in the cool months, and then sow the heat-tolerant ones later to help carry you through the warming days of spring.
Lettuce seeds require light to germinate. Sprinkle seeds on top of the soil, and lightly cover or scratch them into the bed just below the surface of the soil. Lettuce must be kept moist throughout its growing season.
As seedlings mature, they need to be thinned. When they are 2 or 3 inches tall, gently pull out the largest plants. These will make your first salad, even though they are small. Leave 6 to 8 inches between the remaining plants for sufficient room to mature. If pulling the seedlings is difficult, pinch them off instead.
When to Harvest Lettuce
Expect to begin harvesting leaf lettuce 45 days after planting and semiheading selections in about 50 days. Pick outside leaves first; the plant will continue to actively grow and produce. Or cut the entire plant 2 inches above the base. The new plants may not have the lovely form of the original, but more leaves will be produced. To store lettuce, soak it immediately in an ice water bath for five minutes. Then drain, and store in zip-top plastic bags in the refrigerator.
Grow Lettuce in Containers
For fresh lettuce right at your doorstep, try growing containers on a sunny porch or deck. Sow seeds directly into large pots, along with early spring greens such as arugula, cilantro, and nasturtium. They'll add more flavor to salad.
You can also start transplants indoors in midwinter by sowing five to seven seeds per pot. As the seedlings grow, transplant them to larger containers. However, keep the pots small enough to be moved easily. That way you can bring them inside during severe weather.
When to Stop Growing Lettuce
With warmer days and nights of late spring, lettuce begins to bolt. It grows tall and becomes bitter. Then it blooms and sets seed. Now is the time to pull it out and plant summer vegetables and flowers. But remember, you can have fresh lettuce again in fall.
TYPES OF LETTUCE
Arctic King (green, semiheading)
Brune d'Hiver (green, semiheading)
Rouge d'Hiver (red, romaine-type)
Winter Marvel (green, semiheading)
Buttercrunch (green, semiheading)
Four Seasons (red and green, semiheading)
Lolla Rossa (red, leaf lettuce)
Royal Oakleaf (green, leaf lettuce)
Tom Thumb (green, semiheading)
Black Seeded Simpson (green, leaf lettuce)
Craquerelle du Midi (green, romaine type)
Red Riding Hood (red, semiheading)
Two Star (green, leaf lettuce)