Cultivating winter lettuce in the hoophouse. Photo by McCune Porter 

Sowing Lettuce in September

We transplant a lot of lettuce — our annual series of sowings runs to number 46 on 9/27. (The last few sowings are “insurance plantings” in case something goes wrong with an earlier planting.) From 9/1-9/21 we sow head lettuce every 2 days. The rate of growth slows down when the weather cools, and the harvest dates of those September sowings will spread out. They feed us through winter, if we protect them from the cold.

We used to grow lettuce outdoors in winter under double row cover, before we got our hoop house. It stayed alive, but we didn’t get harvests very often. Row cover keeps the lettuce 4 to 6 degrees F (2.2 to 3.3 degrees C) warmer, depending on the thickness. Lettuce survives an occasional dip to 10 degrees F (–12 degrees C) with good row cover outdoors — but not 8 degrees F (–13 degrees C), I know!

Varieties to try. Half-grown lettuces are more cold-hardy than full-sized plants. Small and medium-sized plants of 'Marvel of Four Seasons', 'Rouge d’Hiver', 'Winter Density', and 'Tango' can take 15 degrees F (-9.5 degrees C). I’ve seen some small unprotected lettuces survive down to 5 degrees F (-15 degrees C): Winter Marvel, Tango, North Pole, Green Forest. Other particularly cold-hardy lettuce varieties include 'Brune d’Hiver', 'Cocarde', 'Esmeralda' (a bibb), 'Lollo Rossa', 'North Pole' (bibb), 'Outredgeous', 'Rossimo', 'Sunfire' and 'Vulcan'.

From 9/1 to 9/7, we use cold-hardy varieties for planting in cold frames in central Virginia: 'Green Forest', 'Hyper Red Wave', 'Merlot', 'Midnight Ruffles', 'New Red Fire', 'Oscarde, Panisse', 'Pablo', 'Red Salad Bowl', 'Salad Bowl', 'Winter Marvel' (a Bibb) and 'Winter Wonderland' (Romaine).

'Pablo' is a hold-over from the summer Batavian lettuces — heat-tolerant varieties also tolerate cold. There are also specialized cold-hardy varieties that do not tolerate heat (because they have a relatively low water content). Sow these in fall and winter only.

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