Lettuce is one of the simplest and most rewarding crops to grow in your veggie garden. It’s the most widely grown leafy green vegetable in the US for excellent reasons. In this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know about how to grow lettuce, from planting seeds to enjoying your first harvest.
Since it’s so fast-growing and versatile, lettuce is a perfect option for a wide variety of garden situations. From traditional garden plots to raised beds and patio pots, growing lettuce is simple and easy.
All you need is a sunny location, soil that’s well-draining and rich in nutrients, and plenty of water. Lettuce grows best in cool weather, which means that the time to plant it is in early spring and late summer.
One of the greatest parts about growing your own veggies is the wide selection of unusual varieties to plant that aren’t typically available at the grocery store. In addition, homegrown produce has better flavor and more nutrients than store-bought alternatives.
- Best Tips and Tricks for Growing Lettuce
- Different Types of Lettuce
- Common Pest and Disease Issues for Lettuce
- Companion Plants for Lettuce
- Health Benefits of Eating Lettuce
Best Tips and Tricks for Growing Lettuce
In most regions, lettuces are spring and fall crops. These cool-weather salad greens grow best at temperatures between 60-70℉.
They’re remarkably fast-growing, with baby greens ready to pick within about a month from planting seeds and full heads in six to eight weeks, depending on the variety.
Although lettuce will grow in partial shade, it does best in full sun with at least six hours of direct sunlight every day. Whether you’re growing lettuce in containers or garden beds, it requires loose, well-draining soil that’s rich in nutrients and organic matter.
In addition, lettuce plants are heavy feeders, so it’s beneficial to fertilize them at least once while they’re growing. Lettuce makes a nice addition to a potted vegetable garden as long as it gets the care it needs.
How Long does Lettuce Take to Grow?
You might be wondering, “How long does lettuce take to grow?” It depends on which lettuce varieties you plant. There are four main classifications of lettuce: butterhead, crisphead, romaine, and looseleaf varieties.
Loose-leaf lettuce types tend to be the fastest-growing. They form loose heads that are ready to harvest in as little as five or six weeks.
Butterhead lettuce ordinarily takes the longest to mature, averaging eight to nine weeks from planting to harvest. Also known as Boston or Bibb lettuce, these varieties are more heat-tolerant than other cultivars.
Although lettuce grows at temperatures as low as 40℉, they grow much faster between 60-70℉, so to give your lettuce plants a head start in early spring when the weather is still chilly, try starting your cool-season crops like lettuce in a cold frame.
Cold frames are small, portable solar greenhouses that allow gardeners to conveniently start cool-season crops earlier.
They’re also helpful to harden off warm-season plants and extend the growing season later in the fall. They’re incredibly straightforward to make at home using repurposed materials.
First, decide on the dimensions of your cold frame. Some gardeners top raised beds with a cold frame early in the season.
Others use them as free-standing mini-greenhouses to move around as needed. It’s possible to customize the design of your cold frame to suit your situation.
Begin by cutting your 2×6 pieces to match the dimensions of the lid. It’s helpful to design your cold frame so that the back is taller than the front to drain water and maximize sunlight hours.
Next, cut one of the 2×6 pieces diagonally so that you have two triangular pieces for the sloped sidewalls.
Screw the sideboards to the corner pieces, securing each board with two wood screws. For the triangular top panels, attach the narrow point to the board below with a vertically placed screw. Repeat with the front and back boards to complete the box.
Position your lid on top of the frame and attach hinges to the back. If you aren’t using salvaged windows or a shower door, construct the frame for the lid and attach transparent or opaque greenhouse plastic or a sheet of polycarbonate.
For more extended cold frames, use several hinges along the length of your cover to ensure that it’s secure.
Attach the lid supports. First, place a long 1×1 piece on either side of your cold frame to hold up the sides of the lid at various heights.
On the front edge of the frame, position two shorter supports on either side. These pieces keep the top just barely open enough for ventilation.
Attach the pieces with wood screws on the inside of the frame. Ensure that they’re just loose enough to swivel into position but tight enough to stay in place when supporting the cold frame lid.
It’s possible to accelerate your spring harvest by up to two weeks when using a cold frame. Similarly, cold frames extend the growing season considerably in the fall and even throughout the winter in some climates.
How to Grow Lettuce from Seeds
Lettuce grows best when the seeds are sown directly in the garden, so the best way to plant lettuce seeds is in early spring anytime the soil temperature is consistently above 40℉.
However, the ideal temperature for germinating lettuce seeds is between 55-65℉. Germination usually takes about seven to ten days.
Since the seeds are so tiny, plant them shallowly – no deeper than a quarter-inch. Cover the seeds with a thin sheet of topsoil and compost, and gently water them.
If you’re starting lettuce seedlings indoors or you purchased nursery-grown lettuce plants, the time for transplanting is around the last frost date for your zone.
Grow lights aren’t usually necessary for growing lettuce seeds unless you don’t have a sunny windowsill available. Keep your seed-starting potting soil moist at all times while the seeds germinate and the seedlings develop.
Make sure to harden off your lettuce seedlings for about a week before transplanting by leaving them out in the elements for progressively more extended periods each day.
The plants must be about two or three inches tall and have at least four or five leaves before transplanting. For a continuous supply of fresh lettuce, plant lettuce seeds every two weeks until the weather is consistently above 80℉.
In hot weather, lettuce plants cease leaf production, send up a flower stalk, and begin generating seeds, a process called “bolting.” For a fall lettuce crop, plant another round of seeds as soon as the weather starts cooling off in late summer.
It’s also quite easy to grow Romaine lettuce from scraps as well as other varieties. All you need is a cup of water, the core of the lettuce, and some toothpicks.
Spacing Between Lettuce Plants
These plants suffer when competing with weeds for water and nutrients. Lettuce plants act as a living mulch when planted close together by suppressing weed growth and shading the surrounding soil to hold moisture for longer periods.
Thanks to their compact size, lettuce plants fit nicely between taller crops. The arrangement is mutually profitable. The lettuce protects the soil, while the taller plants provide partial shade for the leafy greens.
Plant leaf lettuce varieties four inches apart. Spacing between butterhead, crisphead, and romaine lettuce plants should be about six to eight inches.
Best Soil for Growing Lettuce
Since they have a shallow root system, it’s crucial to plant lettuce in loose, well-draining soil rich in organic matter.
A week or two before planting lettuce seeds, work a generous layer of compost or well-rotted manure into the soil and ensure that the area is free from rocks and other obstructions.
Lettuce requires consistently moist soil, but it shouldn’t get soggy. Depending on your climate, water your lettuce every three or four days or more often during dry periods.
Drought stress causes lettuce plants to bolt and become bitter. Lay down straw, leaf litter, grass clippings, or compost between plants as mulch to retain moisture and keep the soil temperature cooler.
Choosing the Proper Fertilizer for Lettuce Plants
Plant fertilizer contains three fundamental macronutrients: nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). Nitrogen promotes leaf growth, phosphorus encourages robust root systems, and potassium supports fruiting and flowering processes.
Leafy greens like lettuce benefit from high-nitrogen fertilizer. Fish emulsion, composted manure, coffee grounds, and grass clippings are excellent natural ways to add nitrogen to your garden soil.
It’s critical to use well-rotted manure. Most raw manure contains such a high concentration of nitrogen that it “burns” the plants.
Fertilizer burn results in brown, crispy leaves and damage to the root system from an excessive buildup of salts that aren’t getting flushed out fast enough.
The only types of manure that are safe to use “cold,” or raw, are rabbit, llama, and alpaca. Other types of manure like chicken, cow, goat, horse, and sheep must be composted first.
Growing Lettuce in Raised Beds
Lettuce is a perfect candidate for growing in raised beds, thanks to its versatility and compact growth habit. The soil in raised beds normally warms up sooner than the ground, making it possible to plant lettuce even earlier in the spring and later in the fall.
Another advantage of growing lettuce in a raised bed is that it’s easier to provide the right soil conditions. Weeds are less of an issue in raised bed gardens and keep the soil from eroding in heavy rains or wind.
Harvesting and Storing Lettuce
The best way to harvest lettuce depends on which variety you grow. For baby greens, pick the outer leaves once they’re two or three inches long.
Harvesting your lettuce before the plant reaches maturity is crucial, as the leaves quickly become bitter and tough when the plant begins flowering.
Many gardeners attest that it’s best to harvest lettuce leaves early in the morning when they’re the crispest and sweetest.
Harvest butterhead, romaine, and loose-leaf lettuce by picking the outer leaves as needed, digging up the entire plant, or cutting it about an inch above the base to regrow a second, smaller head of lettuce. Crisphead or iceberg lettuce should be harvested once the center is firm.
The way to keep lettuce fresh longer is to put it in the refrigerator for up to ten days. After rinsing and drying the leaves, it’s best to store lettuce in a lidded container to avoid bruising.
Also, keep your lettuce away from fruits that produce ethylene gas like apples, avocados, pears, and peaches. Ethylene gas is a naturally occurring chemical that speeds the ripening process and causes lettuce to wilt faster.
Frozen lettuce is also a possibility. This storage method is best when you plan to use lettuce in a recipe rather than for a salad.
Different Types of Lettuce
Lettuce comes in an impressive array of colors, flavors, and textures. Most gardeners grow several different types of lettuce for various uses.
When selecting which varieties of lettuce to plant, it’s essential to understand the differences between them. Here are some of our favorite lettuce varieties to grow in the veggie garden.
True to its name, butterhead lettuce has a sweet, buttery flavor and a tender, creamy texture.
They’re an excellent addition to fresh salads and sandwiches, especially for those put off by the bitter, pungent taste of some other leafy greens. Butterhead lettuce grows in dark green and burgundy shades, and tends to be more heat-tolerant than other lettuce varieties.
Also known as head or heading lettuce, crisphead varieties form a dense, firm central ball. They customarily have a mildly sweet flavor and a crunchy, crisp texture.
The leaves have a higher water content than other types of lettuce, which makes them an extra refreshing summertime treat. There are green, red, bronze, and speckled varieties of crisphead lettuce.
Loose-leaf lettuce types are usually fast-growing, with a tender texture and mildly sweet flavor. Most leaf lettuce cultivars have broad leaves with frilled edges.
The colors range from yellow, green, bronze, and burgundy. Oakleaf lettuce is a specific type of loose-leaf lettuce with lobed leaves that tend to be smaller.
Romaine lettuce features long, crisp leaves with a mildly bitter taste. Sometimes called “cos” lettuce, these varieties tend to be the most heat-tolerant and are slower to bolt when the weather warms.
Although you typically see only green romaine lettuce at the supermarket, there are also bronze, red, and speckled cultivars. It’s easy to grow romaine lettuce yourself, too.
Common Pest and Disease Issues for Lettuce
Although lettuce is generally easy to grow, there are a few pest and disease problems to watch out for in your garden. Plants are much more susceptible to attacks from insects and pathogens when they’re stressed.
Your best line of defense is to keep your plants as healthy as possible by providing adequate amounts of light, nutrients, and water.
Aphids, cutworms, leaf miners, slugs, snails, and thrips are some of the most commonplace insects that feed on lettuce plants. In addition to damaging the foliage, these insects often transport diseases like mosaic virus between plants.
Organic insecticides like neem oil, horticultural oil, and insecticidal soap are effective against soft-bodied insects like aphids, leaf miners, and thrips.
Use diatomaceous earth to combat cutworms, slugs, and snails. Apply row covers to your newly transplanted lettuces to prevent insects from laying eggs on the tender young plants.
Some of the most frequent disease issues for lettuce plants are bacterial leaf spot, downy mildew, powdery mildew, and mosaic virus. Treat the affected plants with organic copper or sulfur fungicide.
Diseases like damping off and white mold come from soil-borne fungi and primarily affect lettuce seedlings. If you’ve had issues in past years, practice crop rotation and plant disease-resistant varieties.
Companion Plants for Lettuce
Companion planting is a useful garden design strategy that gardeners have used for centuries to utilize the mutually beneficial interactions between certain plants, creating a healthy garden ecosystem.
Some plants attract pollinators and predatory insects, and others repel various garden pests. Specific plant pairings reportedly enhance one another’s growth and flavor when grown together.
However, some plants must be planted apart because they have detrimental effects on one another’s growth.
Legumes have a unique ability to fix nitrogen in the soil through a symbiotic relationship with soil bacteria. As such, they make exceptional companion plants for leafy greens like lettuce.
Root vegetables like beets, carrots, parsnips, radishes, and turnips don’t compete for soil space with lettuce plants, which have shallow root systems.
They fit nicely between the lettuce plants to maximize your planting space. Turnips have the added benefit of repelling aphids.
Aromatic herbs like basil, cilantro, chervil, and mint repel pests like aphids, thrips, and slugs. Borage, chamomile, calendula, dill, feverfew, and tansy are wonderful for attracting beneficial predatory insects as well as pollinators.
Members of the Allium plant family like chives, garlic, leeks, and onions deter numerous pests like aphids, carrot flies, slugs, spider mites, deer, and rodents through their strong scent.
Avoid planting your lettuce near members of the Brassica family, which includes bok choy, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, and kohlrabi. These plants reportedly stunt one another’s growth.
Health Benefits of Eating Lettuce
Lettuce contains high levels of vitamins and minerals that have a wide range of health benefits. The exact nutrient content depends on the variety. Butterhead lettuce types typically have the highest nutritional value, and iceberg lettuce has the lowest.
In general, lettuce is rich in vitamins A, C, K, and iron. Vitamin A plays a crucial role in eye health and reduces the risk of cataracts and macular degeneration.
Vitamin K promotes bone strength and decreases the probability of fractures. Lettuce also has anti-inflammatory properties and helps lower cholesterol.
Have you ever wondered, “How long does lettuce take to grow?” Lettuce is an easy and satisfying crop to grow in your garden, and you’ll be harvesting baby greens within a few weeks of planting.
Full heads take between four and eight weeks to mature, depending on the variety. It’s an incredibly versatile crop and thrives in diverse conditions as long as it gets at least five hours of sunlight daily and receives consistent moisture.
Whether you’re a beginner gardener or have years of experience cultivating your garden, it’s worth the effort to grow lettuces as a spring and fall crop.
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