How to Grow Fresh, Delicious Lettuce

Growing Fresh Salad Greens in Your Vegetable Garden

Lettuce (Lactuca sativa) 'Reine des Glaces'
Stuart Blyth/Photolibrary/Getty Images

Lettuce crops (Lactuca sativa) have been growing in popularity over recent years and for good reason:

  • Lettuce is one of those crops whose fresh picked taste simply can't be equaled by anything you can buy at the grocers.
  • Most lettuce varieties are not yet grown commercially in any quantity .
  • Greens don't travel or store well.
  • No store could possibly stock the amount of lettuce varieties you have available to grow.
  • Greens are relatively easy to grow.
  • Greens are high in mineral, vitamin and fiber content.
  • It is cheaper to grow your own lettuce than pay premium prices for gourmet greens.

Starting Lettuce

  • Lettuce is a cool season crop and consequently is best grown in either spring or fall.
  • However, lettuce likes a temperature around 70o to germinate, so early plantings should be started as plugs.
  • Lettuce seeds need light to germinate. Just barely cover the seed with soil.
  • After a couple of weeks check to see if the roots have branched out to the sides of the plug. If so, they are hardy enough to go in the ground.
  • Don't let the seedlings get too large before placing them out.

Care & Feeding of Green Crops

  • If you have fertile soil, you shouldn't need to feed lettuce plants, unless you plant the "cut and come again" varieties all summer. This is one crop where extra nitrogen can't hurt, since all you want from the plant is leaf.
  • Well-rotted manure or compost is ideal.
  • The plants will need regular watering, as lettuce tends to have a shallow root system.
  • Don't keep the area damp or use mulch or you will be inviting slugs.
  • A lettuce crop is ideal for the intensive gardening method which is getting a lot of attention lately, because it matures rapidly, can be planted quite closely and can be planted in succession if you choose seasonal varieties.
  • Lettuce can even be grown in containers or used as a decorative border.
  • If your lettuce looks like it's about to bolt, pull it out of the ground, roots and all, and replant. This shock to its system will slow its growth. Keep well watered.

Harvesting Greens

  • For the longest harvest, direct seed or transplant every 7-10 days.
  • When direct seeding, seeds can either be broadcast and planted in wide rows or spaced 8-12" apart. Spacing is best if you want it to mature into heads.
  • If you are going for heads, be sure to harvest before the head starts to elongate. That means it's ready to bolt and the flavor will suffer.
  • And be forewarned, maturing to a head takes time and therefore makes it more difficult to grow without bolting than the loose leaf varieties.

Here's more on lettuce varieties.

Types of Lettuce

There are literally hundreds of lettuce varieties available, although some vary only slightly in size or days to harvest. For practical purposes, lettuce is divided into four distinct groups:
  1. CRISPHEAD, which forms a firm head with a crisp texture and distinct veins. Iceberg is the most commonly grown commercial variety.
    • Ithaca - A good choice for fall crops. Heat can cause the heads to be looser, but resistant to bolting.
    • Summertime - Large heads are slow to bolt in summer heat, while the heads are forming. Frilly leaves resist tip burn. 70 days

  1. BUTTERHEAD, also forms a head but the texture is more soft and pliable with less distinct veins.
    • Bibb - An heirloom lettuce that has remained popular over the years. Bibb has a tender texture and The Cook's Garden says that the term "butterhead" was coined to describe it. 57 days and 45 days
    • Buttercrunch - An American cousin of Bibb, but more tolerant of hot weather. 65 days
    • Marvel of Four Seasons - A popular European variety having green leaves tipped with red. This variety can be planted late in spring as well as late in summer and fall. Not quite four seasons, but very close. 68 days

  2. LOOSELEAF - Forms a kind of bunch instead of a head. Looseleaf lettuce resprouts from a cut stem without losing quality in flavor or texture.
    • Salad Bowl - An All America Winner. It's easy to grow and fairly heat resistant. There is also a red salad bowl variety. 60 days
    • Lollo Bionda - A frilled edge Italian lettuce that is easy to grow and has a long harvest period. Lollo Rossa is its red cousin. 48 days
    • Oakleaf - Oakleaf and its many varieties grows in a rosette and works well as a cut and come again type. There are red oakleafs, curly oakleafs, royal oakleafs...

  1. COS or ROMAINE, an upright plant with long narrow leaves that look corse but are actually quite tender.
    • Rouge d'Hiver - A red leafed romaine with good cold tolerance which also performs well in spring and summer, making it ideal for succession planting. 60 days
    • Little Gem Mini Romaine - An English heirloom that grows to only 5-6 inches with the crisp texture and the romaine flavor of its big brother. 56 days

    Mesclun is a mixture of greens. Generally these are harvested while young, so succession planting is essential. About a row foot is needed for a salad. Most Mesclun mixes are cut and come again varieties, so cut about an inch above the ground with a scissors to keep it growing. Leaf crops like chicory, chervil, cress, dandelion, sorrel mustard greens and herbs can also be mixed in. 35 - 45 days

    Here's more on choosing and growing lettuce.