Lettuce comes in different varieties. You can grow them directly in the ground, but they can also grow in raised beds or containers. It is possible to grow lettuce indoors in pots on sunny window ledges. You can even grow them in a dedicated salad bed. Teaching your children how to grow lettuce is also straight forward and is a great way to get them into gardening. They are easy to sow and relatively quick to grow.
Begin by choosing your varieties. There are several kinds: crisphead (iceberg) summer crisp, butterhead, romaine (cos) loose-leaf. Most lettuces are green, but some are red. Some loose-leaf lettuce are known as cut and come again, as you harvest their leaves over the season. These are used in permaculture gardens, whose emphasis is on perennial vegetables. With careful selection of varieties planted at different times, you can enjoy lettuce for much, if not all of the year. To avoid gluts of lettuce, the advice is to sow small quantities of seed but do so often.
Lets begin with the preparation of the ground. Lettuce likes pH ranging from 6.5 to 7.5. The soil should be fertile and well-hoed into a fine tilth, kept free of weeds and water-retentive. The ground needs watering before you plant it. It is generally better to avoid dry soil. The bed should be situated in a warm, sunny spot, though lettuce can tolerate light shade, it is not ideal. Lettuce gets planted as small seeds, so they are often planted thickly in rows and thinned out. If you are planting seedlings, you can grow through a mulch.
Make a shallow drill, sow the seeds and cover with a thin layer of soil. It is a good idea to cover with netting for a day or so to protect against birds.
Lettuce likes cool conditions to germinate, so lettuce seeds germinate well in spring. It’s worth noting they don’t do well in excessive heat. Hot summers can cause germination problems. There is a critical period a few hours after sowing when, if the soil temperature rises above 25 degrees C, germination becomes erratic. Joy Larkcom recommends several options:
- Sow between 14.00 and 16.00 so that the critical period occurs at night.
- Keeping the seed in a fridge for two weeks to break dormancy
- In summer water the ground to cool it down
- Plant crisphead, which germinates up to 29 C
- Sowing seeds in modules or trays and keeping them in a cool place covered in a damp newspaper before transplanting.
Keep the beds well-watered, but water the soil rather than the plant. A trickle hose is useful. Do not use a heavy flow of water on seedlings.
Thin out if necessary, to avoid over-crowding. The thinnings can be transplanted or eaten in a salad. The space you leave depends on the variety:
- Small-15-20 cm
- Standard butterhead 27 cm
- Crisphead 38 cm
- Large cos and salad bowl 35 cm
Hoeing the ground regularly is vital. If the soil has been well weeded just a light hoeing will suffice, but ruthlessly eliminate any serious weeds, such as ground elder or thistle.
Slugs and snails will be a problem, so you should have slug defences in place. Use only organic pellets, but have a range of defences in place. I have a pond for frogs, which happily eat the slugs, so I have no slug problem! But slugs like places to hide, so leave no plant debris lying around.
This is the most straightforward bit. You can pick the whole lettuce from the ground by pulling it out or cutting the stem; or if you are growing loose leaf varieties, cut and come again, you can simply take the leaves that you want. Remove the outer leaves of hearted varieties and compost them. Check for slugs hiding among the leaves.
Considerations For Growing Lettuce
Rotation of the lettuce bed around the garden is vital for preventing the build-up of lettuce root aphid.
Now that you know how to grow lettuce, all that’s left to do is eat! We’d recommend the below resources for some great recipes:
- Grow Your Own Vegetables, Joy Larkcom, Frances Lincoln Ltd, 2002