Lettuce is a popular vegetable and used extensively in both the home kitchen and restaurants. Its popularity continues to grow as people become more health-conscious and look for healthy foods to eat. Lettuce can be either a side dish or the main course and doesn’t need even need to be cooked! Lettuce is a fairly easy-to-grow vegetable and offers many varieties to try in your home garden.
What is lettuce, anyway?
Lettuce is a cool-season fairly hardy vegetable, usually planted by seed in the springtime after the last frost and in later summer for a fall harvest. Lettuce does not tolerate heat and high temperatures. There four kinds of lettuce for you to consider for your home garden (as well as many varieties, or cultivars).
Four Kinds of Lettuce
Crisphead, sometimes known as iceberg lettuce (iceberg lettuce is a cultivar of crisphead) is probably the most common type of lettuce you will find in supermarkets. Crisphead is firm, round and has light green colored, crisp leaves. Crisphead lettuce does not tolerate heat well and requires a long growing period making it difficult to grow in the home garden. Crisphead takes 70-80 days to mature.
Butterhead, also known as bib lettuce, forms heads like crisphead but has looser, softer heads with leaves that are less compact. The outer leaves are either green-colored or brownish with cream inner leaves. Butterhead matures in about 70 days after sowing.
Leaf lettuce does not form a head and its leaves grow loosely. The color of the leaves can vary greatly from red to purple to bronze. This type of lettuce is one of the easiest and quickest to grow in the home garden. Leaf lettuce matures in about 40-45 days.
Romaine, also known as cos lettuce, grows in an upright habit with darker green outer leaves and lighter inner leaves. The leaves are firmer than other lettuce and have an almost sweet flavor. Romaine lettuce is increasing in popularity and is a favorite choice in salads. Romaine takes approximately 70 days to mature.
Optimal Growing Conditions for Lettuce
Lettuce grows best in full sun (6 hours a day), cooler temperatures, and moist well-drained soil. As a cool season vegetable, lettuce can tolerate a light frost. In fact, lettuce can loose its taste and form if grown in too much heat. Ideal temperatures for growing lettuce are between 45 and 65 degrees. Lettuce is forgiving of soil types but does grow best in fertile, sandy-loam soil. It should be well draining and not compact or heavy. Organic matter can be added to improve soil consistency.
How to Plant Lettuce
Butterhead and romaine can be grown either from seed or transplants. In northern states, crisphead needs to be transplanted from seedlings because of the long growing season it requires.
Lettuce seeds are very small so the bed needs to be well prepared. The area of planting should be well cultivated and all clods and lumps need to be either removed or well integrated into the soil. Prior to adding fertilizer you should have a soil test performed. You can contact your local extension office for directions. If you have not performed a soil test you can apply a general 5-10-10 fertilizer at a rate of 3-4 pounds per 100 square feet. Be sure to water well after planting.
You can plant successively throughout spring (about 10-14 days apart) for multiple harvests. Putting organic mulch down will help keep the soil temperature consistent and reduce moisture loss.
Spacing of Lettuce Seeds and Plants
Lettuce seeds can be sown for either single or wide rows. Wide rows can be 12-15 inches across. Seeds should be planted about 1/4th to 1/2 inch in depth. Plant about 10 seeds per foot. The seeds should be watered right after planting.
Leave 18 inches between rows for leaf lettuce and 24 inches for the other varieties. Lettuce usually needs to be thinned to prevent overcrowding. Leaf lettuce should be thinned to about 4-5 inches between plants; other varieties can be spaced about 6-8 inches apart.
Caring for Lettuce
Keep lettuce seeds moist and do not let dry out during the germination period. Weeding should be done with care as lettuce plants have very shallow and delicate root systems. During growth keep the plants frequently and lightly watered for best results.
Suggested Varieties of Lettuce to Grow
Mesa 659 (fall), Ithaca
Black Seeded Simpson
Parris Island Cos
Want to learn more about growing lettuce?
If you live in a Midwestern state visit this site for recommended Midwestern lettuce varieties.
If you live further south, check out this site for some recommended lettuce varieties for southern states.