Lettuce crops (Lactuca sativa) have been growing in popularity over recent years and for good reason. Yes, they are relatively easy to grow and they are high in mineral, vitamin and fiber content. Yes, they can get a little pricey in the store, from season to season. But I think the real reason for their popularity with home gardeners is that they are one of those crops, like peas and tomatoes, whose fresh picked taste simply can’t be equaled by anything you can buy at the green grocers. They don’t travel or store well and most are not yet grown commercially in any quantity. No store could possibly stock the amount of varieties you have available to grow.
There are literally hundreds of varieties available, although some vary only slightly in size or days to harvest. All are cool season crops and consequently are grown in either early spring or fall. However, lettuce likes a temperature around 70º to germinate, so early plantings should be started as plugs. Just barely cover the seed with soil, because it needs light to germinate. 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.
If you have fertile soil, you shouldn’t need to feed lettuce plants, unless you keep 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.
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 looseleaf varieties.
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.
For practical purposes, lettuce is divided into four distinct groups: 1. Crisphead, which forms a firm head with a crisp texture and distinct veins, 2. Butterhead, also forms a head but the texture is more soft and pliable with less distinct veins, 3. Looseleaf, which forms a kind of bunch instead of a head, and 4. Cos or Romaine, an upright plant with long narrow leaves that look corse but are actually quite tender. I like the way “The Cook’s Garden” seed catalog divides their lettuce seed into Cutting, Spring, Summer and Fall/Winter varieties. Here are some offerings for the coming season’s garden.
Cutting Lettuce: resprouts from a cut stem without losing quality in flavor or texture. Mostly looseleaf types.
- Salad Bowl was 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 is a frilled edge Italian lettuce that is easy to grow and has a long harvest period. Lollo Rossa is its red cousin. 48 days
Spring: Plant as soon as the ground can be worked. I’m never quite sure what that means, because it often snows another foot after I’ve been out forcing the ground to give way.
- Bibb and Black Seeded Simpson are actually heirloom lettuces that have remained popular over the years. Bibb is the more tender texture and “The Cook’s Garden” says that the term “butterhead” was coined to describe it. 57 days and 45 days
- Marvel of Four Seasons is 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
- Little Caesar was introduced by Burpee last spring. It’s a small romaine that makes a salad for two when mature. Good for small gardens and small families. 70 days
- Little Gem Mini Romaine was offered by Shepard’s Seeds. It’s an English heirloom that grows to only 5-6 inches with the crisp texture and the romaine flavor of its big brother. 56 days
Summer: Start transplants around the last frost date so they’ll be ready to put out before the real heat of summer sets in. European varieties seem best suited for true summer heat stress.
- Buttercrunch is an American cousin of Bibb, but more tolerant of hot weather. 65 days
- Kinemontpas is a French heirloom that is slow to bolt with classic butterhead texture and taste. 60 days
- Sierra and Sierra Blush are remarkably tolerant of summer, attractive plants and they taste good too. 56 days
Fall/Winter: Seeded around Labor Day, day-length varieties do especially well in fall or in winter cold frames.
- Brune d’Hiver is a very hardy butterhead that will be ready for a spring harvest if planted in the fall. 60 days
- Rouge d’Hiver is a red leafed romaine with good cold tolerance which also performs well in spring and summer, making it ideal for succession planting. 60 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