Growing Winter Lettuce

Reader Contribution by Pam Dawling
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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.

This year, we had cutworms eating our outdoor lettuce seed bed in August and September. We sowed (and resowed on 9/16) some outdoor baby lettuce mix to play catch-up and help feed us salads until the hoop house lettuce were ready. Our lettuce mix was ready to cut on day 35 after sowing. We had a warm spell, which helped them grow faster. Because we usually only grow lettuce mix in our winter hoop house and hadn’t planned to sow the mix outdoors, we didn’t have enough ready-made lettuce mix seed. I made our own mix of seasonally appropriate leftover fall varieties that we wouldn’t need for the second hoop house sowing on 9/24.

The lettuce sowings from 9/8 to 9/17 get transplanted in our (unheated) greenhouse. During the winter we harvest lettuce by the leaf, rather than cutting heads. We don’t grow butterhead lettuce (bibbs) after the end of August. The green and red salad bowl varieties do well in the greenhouse and the hoop house, although they are not cold-hardy enough for growing outdoors here.

We use ‘Green Forest’, ‘Hyper Red Wave’, ‘Kalura’, ‘Merlot’, ‘Midnight Ruffles’, ‘New Red Fire’, ‘Oscarde’, ‘Panisse’, ‘Red Salad Bowl’, ‘Red Tinged Winter’, ‘Revolution’, ‘Salad Bowl’, ‘Tango’ and ‘Winter Wonderland’ for the greenhouse.

For the hoophouse winter lettuce, we sow outdoors on 9/15 and 9/24 to transplant inside. We like the Osborne multi-leaf lettuce types (Multigreen 57, Multired 4, Multired 54), ‘Green Forest’, ‘Hyper Red Wave’, ‘Merlot’, ‘Oscarde’, ‘Panisse’, ‘Red Tinged Winter’, ‘Revolution’, ‘Tango’, ‘Red Salad Bowl’, ‘Outrageous’, ‘Salad Bowl’, ‘Winter Wonderland Romaine’.

Young Green Forest lettuce. Photo by Bridget Aleshire

Sowing Lettuce in October

In October our lettuce planting moves indoors, while our lettuce harvesting is straddling outdoors and indoors. On 10/15 we transplant the first outdoor sowing (9/15) into the hoop house, about 230 plants at 10-inch spacing in 4 rows in a 48 feet length of bed (half the length of our hoop house). We expect to harvest leaves from these from 11/16 all the way to 3/1.

On 10/25, we transplant our 9/24 sowing, a similar sized planting. We hope to harvest from these from December to mid-April. We plan to start harvesting our outdoor lettuce heads from 4/15.

On 10/24, we sow our first baby lettuce mix in our hoop house. For those unfamiliar with lettuce mix, this is a cut-and-come-again crop. We like Fedco’s 2981LO Lettuce Mix OG or Johnny’s Allstar Gourmet Lettuce Mix #2310. For those with challenging growing conditions, both companies offer other specialized selected mixes. 1 oz of seed sows about 600 feet.

How to grow baby lettuce mix. We sow 10 rows 4.5 inches apart in a 4-foot bed. That will give us a lot of lettuce! We weed and thin to 1 inch as soon as we can see the seedlings well enough to do so. When the plants are 3 to 4 inches tall, we cut them about an inch above the soil, using large scissors or shears. I gather a small handful with my left hand, cut with my right. After putting the harvested leaves in a crate or bucket, I weed the just-cut area so that there won’t be weeds in the next cut.

I have also read the recommendation to rake over the rows after harvest with a fine leaf rake to remove outer leaves and cut scraps. If you want to make more than one cut, you will need to remove anything that isn’t top quality salad while you can see it.

We’ll get our first cut somewhere in the 12/5 to 12/22 range and might even get as many as 8 cuts during the winter. It will get bitter and need to be pulled 2/26 to 3/15. We’ll have some later sowings to take over before that happens.

We also sow some “lettuce filler” in our hoop house. This is a small area of a few crosswise rows of the varieties we have sown to grow full-size. We’ll use the fillers to replace casualties, or if we don’t have any casualties, we ‘ll cut it as baby lettuce like our intentional baby lettuce mix.

Red Salad Bowl lettuce. Photo by Bridget Aleshire 

Harvesting Lettuce in November and December

I have written blog posts about growing lettuce in October, September, August, July, June and May. Around 11/23 we waited out a cold snap (19 degrees F/-7 degrees C) until a mild spell so we could uncover the last outdoor lettuce beds and finish harvesting them.

In November, we switch to harvesting winter salad mixes, no more big bowls just of lettuce. We use leaves from the outdoor lettuce, the outdoor lettuce mix, or leaves from the lettuce in the greenhouse, according to whatever is most ready. We chop the lettuce up as we harvest. I start with about half of the harvest bucket full of chopped lettuce. I notice that it takes 3 half-buckets of harvested greens to fill one bucket! The greens settle, and when mixed they take less space than they started out using.

Varieties to try. Lettuce varieties we harvest in November include ‘Green Forest’, ‘Hyper Red Wave’, ‘Merlot’, ‘new Red Fire’, ‘Oscarde’, ‘Panisse’, ‘Red Salad Bowl’, ‘Red Tinged Winter’, ‘Revolution’, ‘Salad Bowl’, ‘Star Fighter’, ‘Tango’, ‘Winter Marvel’ and ‘Winter Wonderland’. Last winter, we grew some Osborne Multileaf varieties we liked a lot.

This fall, I learned the hard way that pelleted seed doesn’t store well. See Johnnys Seeds JSS Advantage NewsletterJanuary 2012: “Some seeds, particularly lettuce, are primed before pelleting, which begins the metabolic process leading to germination. Because some of the early steps toward germination are completed before the seed is planted, germination happens more quickly.

Germination times can be 50% faster with primed seed. When seeds germinate quickly, they may avoid potential problems including soil crusting, weeds, and soil-borne diseases. On the down side, primed seed doesn’t have the same storage life as unprimed seeds, so we recommend that you purchase only enough for the current season.”

Pam Dawling works in the vegetable gardens at Twin Oaks Community in central Virginia. She often presents workshops at MEN Fairs. Pam also writes for Growing for Market magazine. Her book, Sustainable Market Farming: Intensive Vegetable Production on a Few Acres, is available at Sustainable Market Farming and in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Store. Pam’s blog is on her website and also onFacebook. Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS postshere.

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