Find all things lettuce in this handy guide full of growing tips, best varieties, harvest and storage tricks and lots of recipes.
Lettuce is often the first thing people want to grow in a garden – or even in containers on a deck. It’s easy to see why – it’s pretty much universally consumed daily in salads, sandwiches and such, it’s easy to grow in sun or part shade, and can be harvested at the ‘baby’ stage or later, making it almost the perfect vegetable to begin gardening with.
In this ultimate lettuce guide (see our other Ultimate Guides here), we’ll look into why to grow lettuce, some of the many varieties you can plant, how to grow it – including succession sowing – and the best ways to preserve (yes, you actually can – though I’m not sure you’d want to…) and store lettuce as well as a wealth of recipe ideas – and NOT just salads!
First, let’s talk about what lettuce is and why it’s great to grow yourself, if you can:
- All lettuce is a good source of vitamin A and potassium, although the darker green leaves have higher concentrations of the provitamin A compound as well as beta-carotene, vitamin C, calcium and iron. In fact, both leaf lettuce and romaine lettuce scored higher than kale in a ranking of nutrient density (source) making them a ‘powerhouse’ vegetable.
- Garden lettuce is far superior, in both taste and vitamin A content, to supermarket brands.
- It’s easy to grow – and delicious when picked fresh.
- It can grow all season long with succession planting (i.e., sowing one small crop at a time) and choosing varieties for different seasons. With regular watering, shade from hot sun, and succession planting, you can enjoy homegrown lettuce almost year-round in much of the country.
Varieties of Lettuce
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Leaf Lettuce (including mixes, mescluns, etc.): probably the easiest to grow, the many varieties of loose-leaf lettuces grow fast and withstand warmer temperatures than head lettuces. They can be harvested as leaves (taken from the outside) or left to grow into full (loose) heads. The popular mixes like “Spring Mix” are a combination of several leaf lettuce cultivars. I always grow a seasonal mix from Pinetree (spring, summer, winter) as well as rows of favorite varieties like Oakleaf, Black Seeded Simpson, Red Sails or Salad Bowl. They mature between 40-50 days.
Romaine (Cos): upright between 8-10 inches tall, romaine is extremely versatile in the garden since they are naturally space-saving, germinate well, and tolerate warm weather. There are many varieties, including speckeled-leaved Freckles, small-headed Little Gem, cool-weather favorite Winter Density, heat-tolerant Jericho, and the standard Paris Island Cos. They all mature at around 60-70 days.
Butterhead (Bibb): one of my favorite lettuces and perfect for lettuce wraps, butterheads have soft and tender leaves. They do like it cooler, however, and have been harder for me to consistently germinate from seed. Favorite varieties include Tom Thumb, a small, space-saving head, the classic Buttercrunch and a more heat tolerant Summer Bibb. Depending on the size, you can harvest Butterhead lettuce anywhere from 55-75 days.
Crisphead (including Iceberg, and Summer Crisp-Batavian)- growing large, crisp heads in your garden results in a darker green head than we’re used to from the store which are useful for many salads and sandwiches. They are also among the varieties that stand up to warm weather, along with romaine. The warm weather crispheads like Summertime (an iceberg) and Nevada (a Batavian) stand up to warmer weather nicely. They mature between 60-80 days, depending on size.
How to Grow Lettuce
All lettuces like well-amended soil (I use a yearly layer of barnyard compost and organic fertilizer in the rows) and grow in both sunny and part-sun areas. In fact, lettuce is one of the vegetables you can grow if your garden has some shade, especially in warmer climates or in the hot mid-summer. It grows best between temperatures of 45-65 and can tolerate light frost.
- Start seeds indoors 4 to 6 weeks before last spring frost date for earliest crop and transplant outside 2 weeks before to 2 weeks after last spring frost.
- Direct sow: sow seeds ¼ inch apart and as thinly as possible in rows 12-15 inches apart.
- When the seedlings have four leaves, thin head or romaine lettuce 6-16 inches apart, depending on size of variety and thin looseleaf lettuce to 4-6 inches apart (thinning is not needed if harvesting as ‘cut and come again’ lettuce).
- Keep the soil surface moist but not soggy, being sure the crop gets at least 1 inch of water a week from rain or irrigation.
- Use mulch (straw, grass clippings, newspaper, etc) to help keep soil evenly moist through the growing season and cut down on weeds.
- Fertilize with a fish emulsion or high-nitrogen organic fertilizer at about 3 weeks old.
- If you want to save seeds, wait for the last plants to bolt (since quickness to bolt is a bad trait) and be aware that different lettuce cultivars can cross with each other, so next year’s plants may not be the exact as the original plant.
TIP: If it’s hard to get delicate lettuce seeds to germinate in mid-summer for fall harvests (always a problem for me!), try this technique recommended by Farmer’s Almanac: “create cool soil in August by moistening the ground and covering it with a bale of straw. A week later, the soil under the bale will be about 10 degrees F (6 degrees C) cooler than the rest of the garden. Sow a three foot row of lettuce seeds every couple of weeks—just rotate the straw bale around the garden.”
How to Succession Plant:
- Choose cold-tolerant cultivars for spring planting. You can find them individually, like Freckles mentioned above, or as a “cool-season mix” or “winter mix” of seed blends from many seed companies (sometimes called ‘mesclun’). Sow a few plants every 2-4 weeks in spring. These are the varieties to sow again in late July-August for a fall crop.
- As the weather warms, plant heat-resistant cultivars (you can find them individually, like Jericho, or as a “warm-season mix.” If you place them in shady areas and give them adequate water, they are less likely to bolt and go to seed during hot spells (or use a shade cloth, but keep the ends open for ventilation). Start a small row (or 4-6 plants) every week to 10 days in summer to harvest until frost.
- In milder climates, plant a variety like Winter Density in every few weeks in September and cover heads with row cover to prolong the harvest into winter.
How And When To Harvest Lettuce
In general, pick all lettuce in the cool of the morning to prevent wilting using a sharp knife to cut heads below the lowest leaves, or pull plants out by the roots, as a way to thin rows. An alternate method, especially for rows of loose-leaf and mesclun-type mixes, is ‘cut-and-come-again’ where you simply use scissors to cut the (usually baby) leaves close to the base as needed. They will grow back to be harvested over and over again.
Loose Leaf– you can harvest by 2 methods:
- Start picking the outer leaves of each plant when they get to be 2 to 3 inches long. Continue picking this way for 4 to 6 weeks until the plant goes to seed (the flower spike grows up out of the center–also called “bolting.”). Then pull the plant and replace it with a new seedling.
- OR cut off the entire bunch of leaves (a loose ‘head’) at once about an inch above the ground. The remaining plant stub will produce new foliage in a few weeks and can be harvested 3 or 4 times before plants need to be replaced (this works better with some varieties of than with others).
Butterhead Lettuce– Cut the head at the base when the head is about the size of your hand, though it will keep developing and be good for harvest for about 3 more weeks before going to seed (while the plant will still keep growing, it is usually more efficient to plant new butterhead seedlings to assure the next crop).
Romaine Lettuce– Cut the entire head at its base near the soil surface when the leaves have formed a fairly tight head about 6 to 8 inches tall.
Crisphead- Cut at the base when the heads form a large, firm head, resembling heads of lettuce you see in the supermarket.
Preserving & Storing Ideas
Best Way to Store Lettuce Test @ The Kitchn (hint: it’s using a box like we’ve done for years, pictured above)
How to Clean & Store Lettuce @ Everyday Good Thinking
How to Freeze Lettuce for Soups, Stews & Casseroles @ Livestrong
Cranberry, Feta, & Chicken Salad (in lettuce cups)
Classic Chef’s Salad – An Easy Summer Meal
Orange Almond Salad with Citrus Vinaigrette
Lettuce Soup @ Farmers Almanac
Romaine Lettuce Smoothie @ Green Thickies
Greens & Apple Juice @ Jeanette’s Healthy Living
Grilled Romaine Lettuce Salad @ Saveur
Grilled Butter Lettuce with Creamy Dressing @ Seattle Times
Turkey Cucumber Lettuce Wrap @ Just A Pinch
Slow Cooker Asian Chicken Lettuce Wraps @ The Comfort of Cooking
Healthy Taco Dip @ Shugary Sweets
Stir Fried Garlic Lettuce @ Epicurious
Summer Rolls with Spicy Peanut Dipping Sauce @ Blue Apron
Pasta with Prosciutto and Lettuce @ Cooking Channel TV
Quick Braised Salmon and Lettuce @ Martha Stewart
BBQ Chicken Chopped Salad @ Iowa Girl Eats
Little Gem Lettuce Salad @ Chow
Sources: The Farmers Almanac, Rodale’s Organic Life
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