Learn the ins and outs of growing lettuce, including Loose-leaf, Butterhead, Romaine and Crisphead varieties. All types of lettuce grow best in cool weather, so plan to add it to your garden in spring or fall.
Lettuce leaf color and texture vary with variety, but all types of lettuce grow best when the soil is kept constantly moist.
Illustration by Keith Ward
(For details on growing many other vegetables and fruits, visit our Crop at a Glance collection page.)
From baby leaf lettuce to big, crisp heads, growing lettuce is easy in spring and fall, when the soil is cool. Leaf color and texture vary with variety. All types of lettuce grow best when the soil is kept constantly moist, and outside temperatures range between 45 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit.
Loose-leaf varieties grow tender leaves in dense rosettes, but seldom form crisp inner heads. Some loose-leaf lettuce varieties have superior heat tolerance.
Butterheads and bibb types quickly form small heads of leaves with stout, crunchy ribs. Some varieties have superior cold tolerance.
Romaine lettuce has elongated leaves with stiff ribs. Romaines often tolerate stressful weather better than other types of lettuce.
Crisphead lettuce includes familiar iceberg types, as well as lush and leafy Batavian, or French Crisp, varieties which have great flavor and color, and are easy to grow.
For more information about types of lettuce and our recommended varieties, see our Lettuce at a Glance chart.
In spring, sow lettuce in cold frames or tunnels six weeks before your last frost date. Start more seeds indoors under lights at about the same time, and set them out when they are three weeks old. Direct seed more lettuce two weeks before your average last spring frost date. Lettuce seeds typically sprout in two to eight days when soil temperatures range between 55 and 75 degrees.
In fall, sow all types of lettuce at two-week intervals starting eight weeks before your first fall frost. One month before your first frost, sow only cold-tolerant butterheads and romaines.
Prepare your planting bed by loosening the soil to at least 10 inches deep. Mix in an inch or so of good compost or well-rotted manure. Sow lettuce seeds a quarter of an inch deep and 1 inch apart in rows or squares, or simply broadcast them over the bed.
Indoors, sow lettuce seeds in flats or small containers kept under fluorescent lights. Harden off three-week-old seedlings for at least two or three days before transplanting. Use shade covers, such as pails or flowerpots, to protect transplants from sun and wind during their first few days in the garden.
Harvest lettuce in the morning, after the plants have had all night to plump up with water. Wilted lettuce picked on a hot day seldom revives, even when rushed to the refrigerator. Pull (and eat) young plants until you get the spacing you want. Gather individual leaves or use scissors to harvest handfuls of baby lettuce. Rinse lettuce thoroughly with cool water, shake or spin off excess moisture, and store it in plastic bags in the refrigerator. Lettuce often needs a second cleaning as it is prepared for the table.
Lettuce varieties are open-pollinated, so you can save seeds from any plants you like. Be patient as your strongest plants develop yellow flowers followed by ripe seedpods. Stake plants if necessary to keep the ripening seed heads from falling over. Gather the dry seed heads in a paper bag, and crush them with your hands. Winnow or sift to separate the seeds from the chaff, and store the seeds in a cool, dry place for up to a year. In some climates, plants grown in spring will reseed themselves in fall.
Bumper crops of lettuce can’t be preserved, so plan ahead for daily salads when lettuce is in season. Stock up on big flavor toppings such as olives, dried fruits, nuts and smoked salmon. Be generous with snippings of fresh herbs as you create original salads. Lettuce rolls stuffed with grain or meat mixtures, held together with toothpicks, make a great appetizer. Dark green or red lettuces have more vitamin A than varieties with pale leaves.
Contributing editor Barbara Pleasant gardens in southwest Virginia, where she grows vegetables, herbs, fruits, flowers and a few lucky chickens. Contact Barbara by visiting her website or finding her on Google+.
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