Growing Guide: Lettuce

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Today’s post is the first in a series of growing guides I want to share on some favorites in my garden, and eventually some houseplants too. Each time I grow something, I learn a little bit more about what it needs in order to thrive. Honestly I’ve learned the most from the plants that didn’t make it! So if you think you have a brown thumb, keep going. It may just be in the process of becoming green.

And there’s no better place to start for the beginner gardener than with some lettuce. It’s where I began my gardening journey. You don’t need a lot of space or a lot of know-how to grow a substantial amount of food. You’ll be able to harvest greens relatively quickly, and it is likely something you’re already buying at the store. If you don’t eat a lot of lettuce, any green will do. They have slightly different requirements but kale, spinach, arugula, and lettuce will all grow similarly. So pick your favorite green, get yourself some seeds and dirt, and lets get growing.

What you will need

  • Growing space or container, preferably with drainage
  • Soil, ideally rich with organic material
  • Seeds
  • Water

Like I mentioned, it doesn’t take much. Lettuce especially is very shallow rooted and doesn’t need a lot of space to grow. So you have the option of growing in ground or in a raised bed if that’s what you’re working with, or you can use literally any vessel you can fill with dirt. A terra cotta planter on your balcony, a big ceramic planter on your back patio, or whatever else you can think of will work brilliantly. Get creative! Jess over at Roots and Refuge has posts and videos all about growing in kiddie pools, plastic storage tubs, or even directly in a soil bag. Lettuce is very forgiving of not so optimal conditions, so it is the perfect crop to experiment with.

What variety should I grow?

There are numerous varieties of lettuce to choose from. When choosing yours, first I would advise you to think about what kind of lettuce you already like to eat. Do you love super crunchy romaine salads? Or soft butter varieties? Would you be delighted to have purple or red lettuce in your salad bowl? Firstly, grow what you like and what you know you and your family will actually want to eat. Secondly, I would suggest looking for a heat tolerant, bolt-resistant variety if you plan to grow lettuce in the summer months (more on bolting later).

An early summer harvest of Buttercrunch and Marvel of Four Seasons lettuces

Some favorite varieties I’ve grown:

  • Marvel of Four Seasons – this is a new one to me this year but it is gorgeous and out-lasting all of my other greens. Green and purple leaves, produces large heads.
  • Buttercrunch – beautiful, buttery textured bright green leaves. Performs well grown as heads or cut-and-come-again.
  • Black Seeded Simpson – standard leaf lettuce. Heat tolerant.
  • Red Sails – lovely purple leaf lettuce.

All of these varieties can be purchased from Botanical Interests. They are my favorite source for seeds, largely due to their gorgeous and informative seed packets. They also provide a large selection of organic, untreated, and mostly heirloom varieties. I am a big fan. Be sure to check them out if you haven’t already!

Let’s get started

If you are starting with a new container, you’ll want to start by filling it up with potting soil. Espoma has a good option, or you could go to your local garden center and ask for their organic potting soil recommendation. Whatever you’re growing in, give it a good water before you start planting your seeds. Lettuce seeds are teensy tiny and can get washed away rather easily.

When it comes to spacing your seeds, you have two main options. You can either grow your lettuce for heads or for leaves. What you choose will largely depend on how you want to eat and harvest your lettuce. If you would rather harvest an entire head of lettuce at a time, you’ll want to grow head lettuce. If you would rather just harvest a few leaves at a time, maybe just enough for a salad or two, you’ll want to grow leaf lettuce, or cut and come again. If you are a beginner or are limited on space, I think that cut and come again, or leaf lettuce is a great place to start.

How to grow head lettuce

An almost mature head of Buttercrunch lettuce

If you want to grow heads of lettuce, you’ll want to follow the spacing recommendations on the back of your seed packet. For buttercrunch lettuce, it is recommended to sow 3 seeds every 6 inches. Mark out your garden space according to the spacing recommendations for your lettuce variety, making small indents where you want to place your seeds. Sow approximately 2-3 seeds in each hole. Lightly cover with soil.

Lettuce seeds are very small, so they do not need to be planted any deeper than 1/8″. Some even need light to germinate, so you could simply press them into the surface of the soil. I prefer to lightly sprinkle soil on top.

Keep the soil evenly moist while you wait for the seedlings to appear. Once your seedlings are about 1/2 inch tall, you’ll need to thin them out so you’re left with only one seedling in each place. Choose the strongest seedling of the bunch to leave, and either snip or gently pull out the others. Giving each little lettuce plant six inches around it to grow will allow it to form a nice, full head of lettuce.

When you are ready to harvest, cut the entire head of lettuce at ground level. Another harvesting option with head lettuce is to harvest only the outer leaves, leaving most of the plant intact so that it can keep growing and producing.

How to grow “cut and come again” lettuce

Buttercrunch, here sown more densely for a cut-and-come-again container.

I really enjoy this method of growing lettuce because it is quick growing, easy to sow and to harvest, you get a longer supply of lettuce, and it really makes the best use of your space.

Once your growing space is prepped and your soil is moist, simply sprinkle your lettuce seeds of choice across the surface of the soil. Lightly press the seeds into the soil, or sprinkle a thin layer of soil on top. Keep soil evenly moist.

With cut and come again lettuce, no thinning is required. Since you don’t need to give each seedling room to become a whole head of lettuce, you can let them fill in nice and close to each other.

When you are ready to harvest, Just pull or cut however many leaves you need at a time. The reason it is called cut and come again is because when you harvest a handful of leaves, in only a few days to fill right back in, ready for another harvest.

Common Problems

By far my most common problem with lettuce is bolting. It really isn’t so much a problem as it is the natural life cycle of the plant, but still. There are some ways around it.

Bolting is when lettuce (and other leafy greens) go from leaf production to flower production. Heat, lots of sunlight, and not enough water are all things that signal the plant to stop producing leaves and start producing flowers and eventually, seeds.

The main ways I avoid or at least prolong bolting in my garden are by growing in the spring and fall, choosing a shadier location, growing bolt-resistant and heat-tolerant varieties, and watering consistently. Even still, your lettuce will eventually end its lifecycle and bolt. When this happens, I just pull the lettuce out and start another round. Lettuce grows so quickly that I can usually get a few successions out of it, even in my short growing season.

Soil requirements

Lettuce can thrive in most soil conditions, as long as the soil is able to be kept moist. Top dressing with compost can help provide necessary nutrients and keep lettuce’s shallow roots cool and moist.

Light requirements

Lettuce does well with 5-6 hours of sun, but in the heat of the summer I find it can tolerate a shadier location. Afternoon sun in the summer can be too intense, so try to plant in a location that is shaded in the hottest part of the day.

I hope you try growing your own lettuce! It really is so simple and such a good way to dip your toe in the water, so to speak, if you’re wanting to give gardening a try. I, for one, am looking forward to homegrown salads all summer long!

Until next time,

-Jourdin

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