How to Grow Tasty Butterhead Lettuce for Salads

A Fitting Name for a Buttery, Sweet Lettuce

Varieties of butterhead lettuce

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Butterhead lettuce (Lactuca sativa var. capitata) features loosely formed, green or reddish-purple heads with a noticeably smooth flavor and texture. Butterhead can be an excellent addition to sandwiches and salads, as it will add crispness without competing with other flavors. Plus, butterhead lettuce is a good source of iron, vitamin A, and vitamin K. It is typically planted in the spring, but in some climates it also can be planted later in the season for a fall harvest. This annual is easy, even if you're a beginner vegetable gardener, and it has a quick growth rate.

Common Name Butterhead lettuce, butter lettuce, butter leaf, buttercrunch
Botanical Name Lactuca sativa var. capitata
Plant Type Annual, vegetable
Size 9–15 in. tall and wide
Sun Exposure Full sun, partial sun
Soil Type Loamy, moist, well-drained
Soil pH Acidic, neutral
Hardiness Zones 2–11 (USDA)
Native Area Mediterranean

How to Plant Butterhead Lettuce

When to Plant

Butterhead lettuce is a cool-season vegetable and will bolt (depreciate and go to seed) in hot weather. Varieties differ on how long they take to mature, ranging from 45 to 60 days on average. 

Plan to direct-sow seeds in the garden about two to four weeks prior to your area’s last projected frost date in the spring. The soil temperature should be between 45 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit. You can plant again in the fall once the temperature cools, though make sure there’s enough time for your variety to reach maturity before freezing weather arrives.

Selecting a Planting Site

Pick a spot that gets full sun, though some afternoon shade is OK. Make sure no nearby larger plants will leaf out in the spring and shade your lettuce too much. The soil should be loose and well-draining. Container growth is also an option if you don't have the right garden space.

Spacing, Depth, and Support

The seeds need light to germinate, so just slightly press them into the soil. Rows should be spaced 12 to 15 inches apart. Thin seedlings to 8 inches apart. A support structure won’t be necessary.

Butterhead Lettuce Care

Light

Butterhead lettuce grows best in full sun, meaning at least six hours of direct sun per day. But it can tolerate partial shade. And in hot climates, it will appreciate shade from the strong afternoon sun.

Soil

Like all lettuces, butterhead does well in an average to rich, loamy or somewhat sandy soil. Lettuce can succumb to rot in heavy clay or other poorly drained soils. So if this describes your soil, consider container culture or amend your soil to improve it. A slightly acidic to neutral soil pH is best.

Water

Keep the soil consistently moist from planting until harvest. The ideal moisture level will have your soil feeling like a wrung-out sponge.

Temperature and Humidity

Butterhead lettuce grows best in cool to moderate temperatures between 45 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Long days of increased light and temperatures above 80 degrees Fahrenheit will signal your butterhead to bolt, which diminishes its flavor. Humidity typically isn't an issue as long as there's good air circulation around plants and proper soil moisture.

Fertilizer

Nitrogen-rich fertilizer will promote quality leafy growth of butterhead lettuce. You can choose a single-ingredient simple fertilizer, such as blood meal, or add generous amounts of compost or manure to the soil prior to planting. Or opt for an organic vegetable fertilizer, following label instructions.

Butterhead lettuce with dark leaves

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Gardner holding butterhead lettuce bunch

The Spruce / Randi Rhoades

Butterhead lettuce leaf separated from bunch

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Butterhead lettuce sprouts planted

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Types of Butterhead Lettuce

  • Buttercrunch is very tender and does better than other varieties in warmer climates.
  • Boston has a medium-large head of loosely arranged, broad, light green leaves.
  • Bibb is a traditional butterhead with a smaller, compact head of short, dark green leaves with dark red edges.
  • Four Seasons has red outer leaves and inner leaves with a pink and cream color.

Butterhead Lettuce vs. Romaine Lettuce

Butterhead lettuce and romaine lettuce are similar in growing requirements and looks, though romaine leaves tend to be more elongated. Both lettuce types add crispness when eaten raw. However, romaine tends to have a stronger and more bitter flavor, as well as more wateriness, than butterhead's velvety texture and mild flavor.

Harvesting Butterhead Lettuce

Unlike many vegetables, it’s almost impossible to harvest butterhead lettuce too early. The smallest leaves are tender and delicious. So you can make use of these leaves when thinning young plants in your garden.

Then, as plants grow, you can harvest only the outer leaves as needed, leaving the inner ones to continue to increase in size. Or you can remove the entire head by cutting the plant at its base once it reaches maturity. If you leave the roots in the ground, the plant might send up a few more leaves for you to harvest before the weather gets too hot.

The best time to harvest is in the morning before the sun causes the leaves to lose some of their plumpness. Wash and dry the leaves immediately, and then store them in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator. It's best to store lettuce away from ethylene-producing produce, such apples and other fruit, which will hasten leaf wilt. Aim to use your lettuce within about a week.

How to Grow Butterhead Lettuce in Pots

Butterhead lettuce is compact and has a shallow root system, making it an ideal container specimen. Container growth can also help you thwart ground-dwelling pests. Plus, butterhead lettuce is surprisingly attractive in a mixed container garden. Grow it with edible cool-season blooms, such as nasturtiums, pansies, and calendula flowers, to yield a spring mix that you can harvest for weeks.

Choose a pot that's at least 6 to 8 inches wide and deep. Individual plants should be spaced roughly 4 inches apart. They can tolerate closer spacing in pots than the ground because there won't be competition from weeds. The container should have drainage holes, and you should use an organic, loose vegetable potting mix. Unglazed clay is a good container material to allow excess soil moisture to evaporate through its walls.

Avoid disturbing the delicate roots with repotting. If plants get crowded, harvest and start over with new plantings.

Pruning

Beyond what you harvest, pruning shouldn't be necessary. However, if a leaf breaks and is dragging on the ground, it can introduce diseases and pests to the plant. So remove it promptly.

Propagating Butterhead Lettuce

It’s possible to propagate your lettuce plants by allowing them to bolt in the summertime, flowering and going to seed. This means you won’t get to harvest your whole plant because it will need to stay in the ground to flower, and in the process its leaves will become unpalatable. But on the flip side, you'll be able to create more plants of a particular variety that you liked by saving seeds. Here’s how:

  1. Leave your lettuce plant in the ground as the weather warms, and continue to water it. Watch for flowers heads to appear. 
  2. Once the flower heads have dried, the seeds should be ready to harvest. Carefully snip the flower heads off the plant. 
  3. Rub the flower heads between your fingers over a paper plate or paper towel, so you can easily see the seeds fall. 
  4. Separate out the seeds, and store them in a paper envelope. They can be planted in the fall or for next year's crop.

How to Grow Butterhead Lettuce From Seed

It’s usually easiest to direct-sow seeds in the garden, but you also can start plants indoors roughly four weeks before your area’s last projected spring frost date. Moisten the soil prior to slightly pressing in the seeds, and then continue to keep the soil moist. Place the container in bright, indirect light, and expect germination in about a week.

Common Pests and Plant Diseases

Several common garden pests can impact lettuce. They include aphids, cutworms, earwigs, whiteflies, slugs, and snails. Some common diseases include lettuce mosaic virus, powdery mildew, and white mold. It's often best to remove and destroy affected plants. Then, start over in a new area. Or it's possible to treat mild insect infestations with an insecticidal soap, by hitting plants with a strong spray of water, or by handpicking the insects off.

FAQ
  • Is butterhead lettuce easy to grow?

    Butterhead lettuce is an easy crop to grow as long as you can provide it with sufficient sunlight, cool temperatures, and moist soil.

  • How long does it take to grow butterhead lettuce?

    Most butterhead lettuce varieties are ready to be harvested within roughly two months of planting seeds. But leaves also can be harvested anytime as needed.

  • Does butterhead lettuce come back every year?

    Butterhead lettuce is an annual, meaning it completes its growth cycle in one season. Sometimes it will reseed itself when left in the ground, but gardeners typically start with fresh seeds or seedlings each year.

Article Sources
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  1. Lettuce, butterhead (includes Boston and bibb types), raw nutrition facts & calories. Nutrition Data.