You might not be surprised to find out that the most widely planted salad vegetable in the United States is lettuce. As the foundation of your salad and your garden, lettuce is an ideal garden vegetable. You can tuck it into small areas, it grows easily and it loves cool weather. These lettuce growing tips will keep your garden and salad bowl full of crisp, green lettuce.
Lettuce is an easy-to-grow annual vegetable. Considered a spring and fall crop, lettuce thrives when temperatures are between 60 to 70 degrees F. Many varieties reach maturity in as little as 30 days, and some can even be harvested much earlier as microgreens. From your garden beds to patio containers, these simple steps will give you a bountiful supply of crisp salad greens throughout multiple seasons.
Lettuce loves cool weather. You can begin planting leaf, romaine and butterhead lettuce as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring. Depending on the variety, lettuce germinates in temperatures between 40 to 85 degrees F. If you plant lettuce in successive plantings, with 10 to 14 days in between, you’ll have an extended harvest. To prevent summer bolt, stop planting one month before warm summer temperatures start. Begin planting fall lettuce in late summer so it reaches maturity when the fall air is cool.
Head lettuce is usually started indoors or in a cold frame and transplanted in the spring after the last frost date. Growing lettuce from seedlings for early spring transplant is a good way to get a head start on the growing season.
The ideal lettuce growing location for spring and fall is in a spot that receives full sun. If you plan on growing lettuce during the summer or in warm planting zones, partial shade can provide protection from the heat. Growing lettuce from seed in late summer may require generous artificial shade to help cool the soil for germination. Once days become cooler, the shade can be removed to give plenty of sunlight to young lettuce plants.
Lettuce grows best in loose, cool soil with good drainage. The addition of organic materials, such as compost or manure, will increase drainage, provide essential nutrients and improve your lettuce growing conditions. If you’ve had trouble with lettuce growth, consider purchasing a soil test kit. Lettuce is sensitive to low pH. The addition of lime can help bring the pH to at least 6.0.
It doesn’t take much work to grow lettuce from seeds. Lettuce seeds are often quite small and only require a planting depth of ¼ to ½ inch deep. Growing lettuce in rows gives your garden a traditional look. Consider alternating rows of green and red lettuce for a whimsical touch.
How far apart to plant lettuce depends on the type of lettuce you’re planting. When sowing seeds directly into the soil, you should plant approximately 10 seeds per foot. Space your rows 12 to 18 inches apart. Thin leaf lettuce seedlings to 4 inches apart. Romaine and butterhead lettuce seedlings require 6 to 8 inches between each plant. Removed seedlings can be transplanted or eaten as delicious, tender microgreens.
Head lettuce is usually grown from seeds started indoors during warm weather for a fall garden. Transplant head lettuce in rows 12 to 18 inches apart with 10 to 12 inches between each plant.
You don’t need lettuce to develop deep roots. In fact, you want to encourage leaf growth over rooting. Lettuce watering should be light, frequent and consistent. The goal is to simply keep the soil moist. Avoid watering too often – overwatering leads to root rot, disease and stunted growth.
Aphids can easily destroy a lettuce patch. Leaves curl and wilt as nutrients and water are sucked away. Aphids also spread disease and create mold issues. You’ll find these annoying little white pests hiding on the undersides of lettuce leaves. There isn’t a systemic insecticide to control aphids, so your best option is to encourage natural predators, such as lady beetles, or to apply a horticultural soap or neem oil.
Snails, slugs and caterpillars also love lettuce. Insecticides are one option, but traps, organic bait and hand picking provide organic solutions to these common pests.
If you notice your lettuce beginning to brown and curl, it could be suffering from a physiological condition known as tipburn. Tipburn is often seen on lettuce when moisture is not consistent. Simply trim the browned lettuce and begin a consistent watering schedule.
You don’t have to worry about how to pick lettuce – it’s one of the simplest vegetables to harvest. Most lettuce can be harvested between 30 to 70 days after planting. When to harvest lettuce depends on the variety and what it will be used for. Really, timing is based on individual preference. Once your lettuce reaches the size you want, it’s ready! Harvesting lettuce in the morning gives you the best flavor.
Knowing how to harvest leaf lettuce is easy. You can either cut the entire bundle off at ground level, or you can remove just a few leaves at a time. Romaine, butterhead and head lettuce are easily cut off near ground level. If you harvest every other lettuce plant, you give the remaining plants room to continue growing.
There are four popular types of lettuce grown in the United States: romaine, butterhead, head and loose-leaf lettuce. Although the growing and care process is similar for all types, each lettuce has distinct characteristics in the garden.
Leaf lettuce varieties are the easiest lettuces to grow. Although many people assume red leaf lettuce is grown differently, growing red leaf lettuce is exactly the same as growing green lettuce. You can grow leaf lettuce in rows for nice bundles of loose leaf lettuce, or you can sow it thickly in a garden bed or container for harvest as young, tender lettuce. By harvesting leaf lettuce through trimming it a few inches above the soil, you can get two to three harvests from one planting. Popular cultivars include Red Sails, Tango and Slobolt.
Romaine, also known as cos, forms tall, tight bundles of thick, sweet lettuce leaves. Reaching up to 20 inches tall, most romaine lettuces take 60 to 80 days to harvest. The extended growing season works because romaine is able to grow without bolting in the warm summers. Growing red romaine lettuce requires the same garden techniques as growing green varieties. Green Towers, Valley Heart and Red Eyes Cos are all interesting romaine cultivars.
Crisphead lettuce, or head for short, is the lettuce we know as Iceberg. One of the most popular types of lettuce, salad lovers all over the country often wonder how to grow Iceberg lettuce. Growing Iceberg lettuce requires a bit more care than other varieties. For the best results, plant head lettuce in your fall garden. By avoiding the warm summer weather, you produce sweeter lettuce. In addition to Iceberg, Ithaca, Great Lakes and Crispivo are great head lettuce cultivars.
Butterhead lettuce varieties produce tightly folded heads of tender lettuce leaves. The middle leaves are often self-blanching to a delicate white color. Named after the subtle butter flavor, this mild lettuce adds a sweet touch to salads. Try Ermosa, Esmeralda or Nancy in your lettuce garden.
Lettuce grows fairly quickly. Leaf varieties reach maturity in 30 days but can be harvested as soon as they reach the desired size. Other types of lettuce require 6 to 8 weeks to reach full harvest size.
Garden zones with minimum temperatures in the 60s can grow lettuce all year round. Lettuce seeds germinate in temperatures between 40 to 80 degrees F, depending on the cultivar. Active growth takes place when days are between 60 to 70 degrees. Warmer zones can grow lettuce throughout the winter if you stick to planting lettuce in the fall. Other areas can use modifications, such as cold frames, row covers and greenhouses to extend the growing season.
Lettuce does not like hot weather. The plant panics and decides that it better produce seeds as quickly as possible. Seed stems develop, and the plant begins diverting nutrients to seed production. This process, known as bolting, produces bitter lettuce.
To reduce lettuce bolting, first look for bolt-resistant lettuce cultivars. Slobolt, for example, can be grown in warmer temperatures. Other gardening tricks to prevent bolting in warm weather include planting lettuce in shady areas, using mulch to cool the ground and conserve moisture, and providing a light mist of overhead irrigation to cool plants.
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