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Beginner’s Guide to Growing Lettuce

Growing lettuce in your backyard garden or container garden is a rewarding, healthy and delicious addition to your gardening adventures!

Lettuce is an easy, delicious and healthy crop for your backyard garden or apartment balcony. In this post I’ll go over everything you need to know to start growing lettuce.

Lettuce is one of those foods I will actually start craving. Especially in the hot summer sun, I can’t imagine eating a heavy dinner. A soup and salad, or grilled chicken over salad is absolute perfection.

Lettuce is also one of those low maintenance plants I love. Once you have fresh lettuce growing in your backyard, Lunch or dinner becomes as simple as going out to the garden and harvesting as much as you want, rinsing, and enjoying! What could get better than that!

But…

What is Lettuce Anyway?

Lettuce actually belongs to the daisy family (Asteraceae)! It is usually grown as an annual for it’s leaves, but some types are grown for their stalks and seeds.

It is commonly used as the foundation for salads, but is also eaten in soups and sandwiches, and was once used for religious and medicinal purposes.

Generally speaking lettuce is a leafy annual that can be found in most regions of the world.

Plants are generally 6-12 inches in height and can come in a variety of colors; from green, red, to gold and blue.

History of Lettuce

Lettuce was originally cultivated by the ancient Egyptians whose seeds were cultivated to make an oil. To take advantage of the plant’s benefits, they began cultivating it for its delicious leaves as well.

It then spread to the Greeks and the Romans, who gave it the name ‘lactuca‘ from which we derive the English for lettuce. Lactuca turned into letues or laitues in Old French, derived from the Roman word.

In fact, the word Romaine was given to the varietal of lettuce found growing in the Roman papal gardens.

By 50 AD, different varietals were being developed and extensive literature was developed around the growing and medicinal benefits of lettuce.

Nutritional Benefits of Lettuce

While lettuce describes a wide variety of plants, I’ve created a table to compare different types of lettuce to give you an idea:

(All sourced from NutritionValue.org. Percentages represent total daily requirements)

Per 100g servingRomaineIceburgArugulaButterhead
Calories17142513
Protein1.2g.9g2.6g1.4g
Riboflavin6%2%7%5%
Thiamin7%3%4%5%
Vit A0%10%47%66%
Vit B66%3%6%6%
Vit C5%3%17%4%
Manganese6%5%14%8%
Vitamin K85%20%90%85%

Beginner’s Guide to Growing Lettuce

Now that we’ve discussed how easy lettuce is to grow, how we’ve cultivated it over our history, and the nutritional value of lettuce, we can begin talking about growing lettuce.

Four Varieties of Lettuce

Most lettuce plants will fall into one of these four lettuce varieties:

1. Crisphead

Crisphead lettuces are those that grow in a ball shape or “head” of overlapping leaves. Crisphead lettuce also sports a crunchy, crisp texture, lending itself to the name.

The interior leaves are paler and sweeter than the outer leaves, but also do not contain the same nutritional value.

Head lettuces are usually started indoors at temps of between 45-65 degrees before being transplanted outside.

The most common crisphead lettuces found in the stores are iceberg lettuce.

2. Butterhead Lettuce

Butterhead lettuces grow in a ball or head just like the crisphead lettuces, but boast a softer, more buttery flavor.

They range in color from pale green to purpley-red.

Boston lettuce is a well-known varietal.

3. Leaf Lettuce

Because leaf lettuce doesn’t grow in heads, it’s best sown in a line directly into the soil as soon as the ground is warm enough to be worked.

It can be started indoors, though, if you want to lengthen your growing season.

Instead of a head, leaf lettuce sprouts leaves on the side of a single stalk.

Leaf lettuces are great for a “cut and come again” method. Meaning you can harvest a few leaves from each stalk for dinner without pulling up the entire plant.

4. Romaine Lettuce

Somewhere between a head and a stalk, romaine lettuce sprouts leaves on the side of a single stalk on ribs, which also fold up on themselves making a longer and taller “head”.

Romaine is the most tolerant of heat and is often sold as whole heads.

How to Start Lettuce From Seeds

When it comes to starting your own lettuce by seed you really have two choices: start them indoors, or direct sow.

To begin, you need to identify your growing zone, which will tell you when your last frost date is. Check out my post on understanding your growing zone for an explanation.

Lettuces are an early spring crop, but can also be planted in late summer /early fall, when the cool weather begins, as they do not tolerate hot weather.

If you start your seeds indoors, you’ll plant two or three seeds per cell in a seed starting tray 4-6 weeks before your last frost date. Gently press them into the soil and water them.

This will give you a 4-6 week head-start on your lettuce crop.

If you don’t have a greenhouse, sunny window sill, or grow lights, you’ll want to direct sow your seeds after the last frost.

Young plants can withstand a light frost, but anything much below freezing and you risk losing your entire crop.

However, to protect your plants from frost you can always construct row covers, or try one of these other ways to protect your plants from frost.

Simply create a trench roughly 1/4-1/2 inch deep and sprinkle your lettuce seeds as evenly as possible down the row. Gently cover and water.

Lettuce will germinate if the soil temperature is over 40degreesF, but do best between 55-65 degrees.

Growing Lettuce

Before you transplant your lettuce seedlings in your garden bed, or sow seed directly, ensure your garden soil contains a lot of organic matter. Lettuces that are grown in rich soil will be able to repel pests better, grow easier, and will have better nutrition.

Like I said above, the best time to plant lettuce is during your cool-weather seasons. Plant new seeds every week to be able to harvest new lettuce leaves every week. This is called succession planting.

For head lettuces, follow the instructions in the back of the seed packet, but generally you plant them 8-12 inches apart.

I’ve heard of two philosophies with this – if you space them far enough apart it allows room for air to flow through the full heads and helps prevent diseases.

However, I know some gardeners who plant their lettuce close together to crowd out weeds.

I suggest try both and see what works the best for your home garden.

Lettuce needs sun, but does not do well in hot weather.

To help with this, you can plant your lettuce on the north side of some trees. In the early spring it will get enough sunlight because the leaves haven’t come in, but by late spring / early summer, the leaves from the trees will provide partial shade and will protect your plants from much heat.

Lettuces also require a lot of water because they have a shallow root system, however mature plants are also vulnerable to much overhead water, so soaker hoses and good drainage will provide the best results.

How Long Until You Can Harvest Lettuce

Depending on the varietal, most lettuce types can be harvested between 30-70 days after germination.

Even so, you can always harvest young lettuce plants or individual leaves to add to your salad bowl depending on your preference!

Like I mentioned above, loose-leaf varieties can be harvested by individual leaf while the rest of the plant will continue to grow and grow new leaves.

And they will continue to grow and produce delicious lettuce until high temperatures cause them to bolt.

For the bare breakdown on how to grow lettuce, see below:

Soil pH

6.2-6.8

Sunlight

3-8 hours (grows in partial and full sun)

Water

Every 3-5 days moisten top 5 inches of soil.

Planting Time

Direct sow as soon as the soil is warm enough to be worked.

Compatible With

Carrots, Radishes, Strawberry, Cucumbers

Avoid Planting With

Celery, Cabbages, Cress, Parsley

Spacing

Direct sow in a row. Rows should be 12-18 inches apart. You can thin the lettuce plants along the row if you feel they are crowded.

Maintenance

Low/no maintenance.

Harvesting

Mature in 65-80 days, however can be harvested young.

Saving The Seeds

Once the daytime temperatures get hot enough, your lettuce plants will bolt (go to seed). Let them flower, let the flowers dry and harvest the seed pods.

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