Welcome, aspiring gardeners and homesteaders, to the ultimate guide on “How to Grow Lettuce” – your go-to resource for cultivating luscious, leafy greens right in your backyard!
Lettuce, the versatile and nutritious superstar of salads and sandwiches, is an absolute delight to grow, even for beginners. We’ve been growing lettuce in our homestead garden for almost 2 decades and will share everything we’ve learned (and love) about this crop.
In this post, we’ll equip you with all the green-thumb wisdom and gardening know-how needed to nurture flourishing lettuce plants that will have your friends and family begging for seconds. So, grab your gardening gloves and let’s dive into the delightful world of lettuce cultivation!
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Growing Lettuce Quick Facts
Best Time to Plant: Plant your lettuce in early June in most growing zones, after the risk of frost has passed. Lettuce prefers cooler temperatures for optimal growth. Soil pH: Ensure your soil has a pH level between 6.0 and 6.5. This slightly acidic to neutral pH range provides an ideal environment for lettuce to thrive. Soil Type: Choose rich, well-draining soil for your lettuce bed. Ample nutrients and good drainage are essential for healthy lettuce plants. Sunlight: Lettuce loves sunlight, so provide it with at least 6 to 8 hours of full sun each day. Placing your lettuce in a sunny spot will promote vigorous growth. Watering: Water deeply and gently once a week. Lettuce prefers consistent moisture but can suffer from overwatering, so ensure the soil doesn't become waterlogged. Fertilizing: Feed your lettuce plants every two weeks with a balanced fertilizer. This will supply the necessary nutrients for continuous growth and a bountiful harvest. Plant Spacing: Plant lettuce 10 seeds per foot. Or space your rows 12 to 18 inches apart and seedlings to 4 inches apart. Romaine and butterhead lettuce seedlings require 6 to 8 inches between each plant. Common Pests: Be on the lookout for pests such as cucumber beetles, squash vine borers, aphids, cutworms, leafminers, and thrips. Monitor your plants regularly and take appropriate pest control measures if needed. Companion Plants: Grow leeks, onions, and dill as companion plants near your lettuce. These companions can help deter certain pests and enhance the growth of your lettuce. You can also grow lettuce alongside tall plants to provide shade during the hot summer months. Harvest Time: Harvest your lettuce when the rinds are hard, and the desired color is achieved. Harvesting before the first heavy frost is essential to avoid damage to the leaves. Storage: Store your harvested lettuce in a cool, dry place with good air circulation. This will help keep your lettuce fresh and crisp for a longer period.
Selecting the Best Lettuce Variety
Lettuce comes in a number of varieties and we recommend planting several varieties each year. One of the best parts of learning how to grow lettuce is choosing the varieties you want to grow. Below you can see some of the best and most popular lettuce varieties.
Butterhead Lettuce (Lactuca sativa var. capitata): Butterhead lettuce is known for its tender, buttery leaves and mild flavor, making it a popular choice among gardeners. The loose, cup-shaped heads are easy to harvest, and the leaves have a delightful melt-in-your-mouth texture. Varieties like ‘Bibb’ and ‘Boston’ are excellent options for small-space gardens and containers, while ‘Buttercrunch’ is a widely beloved heirloom variety.
Romaine Lettuce (Lactuca sativa var. longifolia): Romaine lettuce, also known as cos lettuce, boasts long, upright heads with sturdy, crisp leaves. Its refreshing crunch and slightly nutty taste make it a staple in salads and sandwiches. Popular varieties include ‘Parris Island Cos,’ which is disease-resistant and heat-tolerant, and ‘Little Gem,’ a mini romaine perfect for small gardens.
Loose-Leaf Lettuce (Lactuca sativa var. crispa): Loose-leaf lettuce is one of the easiest and quickest varieties to grow. It doesn’t form a tight head but produces loose, frilly leaves that come in various colors and textures. ‘Oak Leaf’ lettuce offers beautiful lobed leaves resembling oak foliage, while ‘Red Sails’ delights with maroon-tinged leaves and a mild taste. With loose-leaf lettuce, you can harvest the outer leaves while allowing the inner ones to keep growing.
Crisphead Lettuce (Iceberg Lettuce) (Lactuca sativa var. capitata): Crisphead lettuce, commonly known as iceberg lettuce, forms tight, dense heads with a refreshing, crunchy texture. While it requires a longer growing season and consistent care, it’s a classic choice for salads and sandwiches. Varieties like ‘Great Lakes’ and ‘Avalon’ are popular for their disease resistance and ability to produce well-formed heads.
Summer Crisp Lettuce (Batavian Lettuce) (Lactuca sativa var. capitata): Summer crisp lettuce, also called Batavian lettuce, is a versatile variety that combines the best features of both loose-leaf and crisphead types. It forms moderately tight heads with crisp, thick leaves that withstand heat better than other lettuce types. ‘Muhammad’ and ‘Tropicana’ are excellent choices for heat resistance and a sweet, mild flavor.
Mesclun Mix: Mesclun mix refers to a blend of various lettuce varieties and other leafy greens, providing a diverse and flavorful salad mix. Typically including baby greens like arugula, spinach, and mustard, along with different lettuce types, mesclun adds excitement and variety to your garden and meals. Sow seeds densely, and in just a few weeks, you’ll have a bountiful harvest of tender, young leaves.
Batavia Lettuce (Lactuca sativa var. capitata): Batavia lettuce shares similarities with both crisphead and loose-leaf types. It forms loose, semi-crisp heads with a buttery texture and sweet flavor. What sets it apart is its heat tolerance and resistance to bolting, making it an excellent choice for warmer climates. Varieties like ‘Marshall’ and ‘Nevada’ are popular for their attractive, frilly leaves and reliability in various growing conditions.
Consider planting a mix of these lettuce varieties to enjoy a range of flavors, textures, and colors in your garden and salads throughout the growing season. Happy gardening and happy eating!
How to Grow Lettuce
In the section below we will go into details of exactly how to grow lettuce.
When to Plant Lettuce
The ideal time to plant lettuce is during early spring or fall when temperatures are cooler and more favorable for its growth. In most regions, planting lettuce should take place as soon as the soil can be worked and the danger of frost has passed in the spring. For a fall crop, sow the seeds around 6 to 8 weeks before the first expected frost date. Lettuce thrives in mild weather and can tolerate light frost, but it tends to bolt (go to seed) and become bitter in hot weather.
Lookup your last average frost date.
To ensure a consistent harvest, plant your lettuce every few weeks during the growing season and protect your plants from the midsummer sun.
By timing your planting correctly, you can ensure a successful lettuce harvest and enjoy fresh, crisp leaves for your salads and sandwiches.
How to Plant Lettuce
To plant lettuce, start by choosing a sunny location with well-draining soil. Prepare the soil by removing any weeds and debris, then loosen it to a depth of 6-8 inches. Sow the lettuce seeds about 1/4 inch deep, spacing them 6-12 inches apart in rows or scatter them for a more natural look in a raised bed or container. Lightly cover the seeds with soil, and water gently to keep the soil consistently moist during germination.
As the lettuce grows, thin the seedlings to allow proper spacing and airflow. Consider succession planting every few weeks to ensure a continuous harvest. With regular watering, proper spacing, and timely planting, you’ll be rewarded with a bountiful crop of fresh, healthy lettuce leaves.
Lettuce Care and Maintenance
Lettuce care and maintenance are essential to ensure a thriving and abundant harvest. Regular watering is crucial, especially during dry spells, as lettuce prefers consistent moisture. However, avoid overwatering to prevent waterlogged soil, which can lead to rot. Applying a layer of organic mulch around the plants can help retain soil moisture and control weeds.
Keep an eye out for common pests such as aphids, cutworms, and cucumber beetles, using natural methods like hand-picking or introducing beneficial insects to manage them. Additionally, be mindful of any signs of disease, and promptly remove and dispose of affected plants to prevent further spread. Regularly fertilize lettuce with a balanced, organic fertilizer every two weeks to promote healthy growth.
As the lettuce matures, you may need to thin the plants to provide sufficient space for them to develop fully. By following these care and maintenance practices, you’ll be well on your way to cultivating a flourishing lettuce crop to enjoy fresh, crisp salads throughout the growing season.
Harvesting and Storing Lettuce
Harvesting and storing lettuce properly are crucial steps to enjoy the freshest and most flavorful greens from your garden. As the lettuce reaches maturity, typically around 60-70 days after planting, start harvesting the outer leaves of loose-leaf and butterhead varieties. Pick leaves individually, leaving the center of the plant to continue growing. For romaine and crisphead types, wait until the heads are well-formed, and then cut them at the base with a sharp knife. Harvest in the morning when the leaves are at their crispiest.
After harvesting, rinse the lettuce leaves gently to remove any dirt and pat them dry with a clean towel. To store lettuce, wrap the leaves loosely in a paper towel and place them in a perforated plastic bag to maintain moisture without causing decay. Store the bag in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator, and lettuce can stay fresh for up to a week.
Remember, lettuce is best when consumed soon after harvest, so try to use it as quickly as possible for the most delightful and nutritious salads and dishes.
Best Tips for Growing Lettuce
- Choose the right time to plant lettuce, preferably in early spring or fall, when temperatures are cooler and more favorable for growth.
- Select a sunny location with well-draining soil to provide optimal conditions for lettuce to thrive.
- Prepare the soil by removing weeds and debris, then loosen it to a depth of 6-8 inches before sowing the seeds.
- Sow the lettuce seeds about 1/4 inch deep and space them 6-12 inches apart, either in rows or scatter them for a more natural look. Thin to 4 inches or more.
- Keep the soil consistently moist during germination by watering gently, but avoid overwatering to prevent waterlogged soil and rot.
- Consider applying a layer of organic mulch around the plants to retain soil moisture and suppress weeds.
- Be vigilant against common pests such as aphids, cutworms, and cucumber beetles, and use natural methods like hand-picking or introducing beneficial insects to control them.
- Check for signs of disease regularly, and promptly remove and dispose of affected plants to prevent further spread.
- Regularly fertilize lettuce with a balanced, organic fertilizer every two weeks to promote healthy growth.
- Thin the lettuce seedlings as they grow to provide sufficient space for them to develop fully.
- Harvest loose-leaf and butterhead varieties by picking outer leaves, and cut romaine and crisphead types at the base when heads are well-formed.
- Rinse harvested lettuce leaves gently to remove dirt, and store them in a perforated plastic bag with a paper towel in the refrigerator’s crisper drawer for up to a week.
Common Lettuce Problems and Solutions
Aphids are small, soft-bodied insects that suck sap from lettuce leaves, causing stunted growth and yellowing foliage. Solution: Introduce natural predators like ladybugs or lacewings to control aphid populations. Alternatively, spray a mixture of water and mild soap or neem oil on affected plants to suffocate and deter aphids.
Downy mildew is a fungal disease that appears as yellow or white spots on the upper side of leaves and a grayish-white mold on the undersides. Solution: Improve air circulation around the lettuce plants by spacing them adequately and removing nearby weeds. Apply copper-based fungicides early in the growing season to prevent downy mildew infection.
Slugs and Snails: Slugs and snails chew on lettuce leaves, leaving behind irregular holes and slime trails. Solution: Use physical barriers like copper tape or diatomaceous earth around the lettuce beds to deter slugs and snails. Handpick these pests in the evening when they are most active, or set up beer traps to attract and drown them.
Lettuce tends to bolt, or prematurely go to seed, in response to high temperatures. Bolting causes bitter-tasting leaves and reduces the harvest period. Solution: Plant lettuce early in the spring or in the fall to avoid extreme heat. Choose heat-resistant varieties, and provide shade during hot days to minimize bolting. Harvest promptly when heads are mature to prevent bolting.
Powdery mildew is a common fungal disease that forms a white, powdery coating on lettuce leaves, hindering photosynthesis and weakening the plant. Solution: Water lettuce at the base and avoid wetting the foliage to reduce humidity levels, as powdery mildew thrives in humid conditions. Apply a solution of baking soda and water or neem oil to affected leaves to control the mildew’s spread.
Cutworms are caterpillars that cut through young lettuce stems at ground level, causing wilting and plant death. Solution: Create physical barriers like cardboard collars around young lettuce plants to protect them from cutworms. Set up traps with pieces of wet cardboard in the garden, where cutworms will congregate for easy removal.
Do you have addition insight into how to grow lettuce? Drop us a comment below.