Grow Great Lettuce in Winter

With a little planning, you can harvest fresh, homegrown greens in the coldest season. Ready to learn more? Lettuce begin!

| August/September 2018

When I moved to central Virginia 25 years ago, my gardening neighbors believed that lettuce couldn’t be grown in winter. I set out to prove that we could indeed produce a continuous supply of salad greens year-round. I garden at Twin Oaks Community, where we plant 120 lettuces each week — enough to feed 100 people. By late September, we’ve made our 46th sowing of the year. Although we cultivate much more than you’ll likely need to grow yourself, you can still apply our planting strategy to enjoy fresh, homegrown lettuce throughout winter on a smaller scale.

A simple way to extend your harvest is to sow several different lettuce cultivars on the same day, each day you plant. You should plant cultivars with various numbers of days to maturity, including at least one fast one and one slow one. Bibb and romaine lettuces will mature quickly. Loose-leaf lettuces, such as the 50-day salad-bowl cultivars, are very useful because you can harvest individual leaves while you’re waiting for the heads to reach full size.

Choose cultivars that are suited to the season — those with “winter” in their names are good bets. I also like to plant cultivars that differ in color and shape. There’s no reason to get bored with lettuce!

In fall, to ensure winter harvests, we transplant lettuce seedlings from the garden into cold frames, an unheated greenhouse, and a hoop house. (At its simplest, a hoop house is a hoop structure covered with clear plastic; see Season Extension for plans.) We’ll have enough lettuce to feed us through winter if we protect these plants from the cold. Lettuce planted inside a cold frame may not make it all the way through the winter. For an extra layer of frost protection, we toss old quilts on our cold frame lids on nights the temperature will fall below 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Inside the hoop house, we’ve had lettuce survive at 10.4 degrees — and, under good row cover, down to minus 2.2 degrees! Our hoop house averages about 6 degrees warmer than outdoor temperatures.

Half-grown lettuces are more cold-hardy than full-sized plants. Small and medium-sized plants of the following cultivars can survive down to 15 degrees: ‘Marvel of Four Seasons,’ ‘Rouge d’Hiver,’ and ‘Winter Density.’ I’ve also seen small, unprotected plants of the following cultivars survive down to 5 degrees: ‘Winter Marvel,’ ‘Tango,’ ‘North Pole,’ and ‘Green Forest.’ Other particularly cold-hardy lettuces include ‘Brune d’Hiver,’ ‘Cocarde,’ ‘Lollo Rossa,’ ‘Outredgeous,’ ‘Rossimo,’ and ‘Vulcan.’

Before we built our double-layer hoop house, we grew lettuce outdoors in winter under two layers of row cover. Most lettuces can survive an occasional dip to 10 degrees with good cover. Depending on the thickness of the row cover, the interior can be 4 to 6 degrees warmer than the outside temperature. Our lettuce survived, but didn’t produce enough for frequent harvests. August 29 is our last sowing date for planting outdoors under row covers. You should experiment with frost protection and cold-hardy cultivars to discover what will work in your garden. If you’re in a cold climate, consider adding inner tunnels within your hoop house and adjusting the planting dates.

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