Growing lettuce in the fall and early winter is really quite easy. All it takes is a little planning and protection from the cold to get a great fall crop.
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We love lettuce fresh from the garden. In fact, we love lettuce so much that we do everything we can to have lettuce growing in the garden all year long. Lettuce is, for the most part, a cool weather plant. Most people grow lettuce as a spring crop, and so do I. Most varieties of lettuce prefer to grow in temperatures not much more than 75 degrees. We have found that fall is really the best time of the year to grow lettuce.
Table of Contents
- Advantages of growing lettuce in the fall
- How to grow lettuce in the fall?
- When to plant fall lettuce?
- Fall lettuce seed varieties
- How to protect lettuce from late summer heat?
- How to protect lettuce from early winter?
Advantages of growing lettuce in the Fall
My favorite time of year to grow lettuce is in the fall there are so many advantages to planting it this time of year. In spring you are rushing to get all your lettuce harvested before the heat sets in and turns the leaves bitter. But in the fall temperatures are cooling making it the perfect time for lettuce growing. And most years we can get lettuce to stay tasty until the middle of December with some protection. Below is a list of why I think it is better to grow lettuce in the fall.
- It’s easy to start lettuce indoors around the first of August to be set out in early September.
- Less competition for space on my seed starting shelves
- Seeds started outside get a good start in warm weather
- Transplants set out in fall are unlikely to suffer much shock because of cooler temperatures
- Lettuce tastes better and isn’t bitter because weather is getting cooler
- Decrease in pest problems
- Lettuce suffers less from tip burn
As you can see this is why I love growing lettuce in the fall. If you do your succession planting correctly the fall lettuce season will last several months longer than the spring crop.
We usually start eating the first fall lettuce around September 1st and we usually finish harvesting the last of our fall lettuce around the end of December. That’s 4 months, compared to May and June in the spring.
Overall I think fall lettuce just tastes better. Even when the plants get bigger, the leaves stay tender and don’t get bitter. With a cold frame, mild winter, and good succession planting you can extend that harvest through the winter and into the spring
How to grow lettuce in the fall?
Even though it is my favorite time to plant lettuce you need to keep in mind some important things to know to be successful with your fall garden. Timing of planting, the varieties of seeds you plant, protection from the heat of late summer, and protection from the cold of early winter. Gardening in the fall time is different than your normal summer gardening. If you remember to do these 4 items you will have a great fall garden. Let’s talk about each of these.
When to plant Fall lettuce?
If you are planning on growing lettuce in the fall the most important thing to keep in mind is the timing of when you plant those seeds. You should aim to start getting seeds in the ground about 60 days before your first frost date. For example, our first frost usually arrives right around October 1st, so we start planting lettuce either in the garden or indoors in our seed starter on August 1st. If your first frost date is November 1st then you could wait till September 1st to plant. The key is 60 days.
Now, can you get away with 45 days? Of course, but 30 days before your first frost will be pushing it. You need to have some well-established plants by that frost date. Also, keep in mind that anything planted in the fall will take longer to mature than it would in the spring. If your seed package says your lettuce will be ready to eat in 45 days then plan on 55 to 60 days in the fall. Your daily amount of sun will be decreasing in the fall so it just takes longer for the lettuce to be ready.
Fall Lettuce Seed Varieties
Variety selection is the least important part of growing lettuce in the fall. Most lettuce that you grow in the spring will also do well in the fall. But I would avoid “head” lettuce and stick with either leaf lettuces or lettuces that form smaller looser heads.
Butter Crunch lettuces do very well in the fall as they don’t form a heavy solid head. Some smaller varieties of romaine lettuces also do well, we grow a variety called Paris Island that usually gets a nice head developed by late November.
Lettuce varieties we grow in the fall
- Paris Island– This is pretty close to a romaine lettuce. 2011 was the first year we planted this variety and it quickly earned a spot in our rotation. Its large crispy leaves make great salads.
- Buttercrunch – This is a bib lettuce that eventually forms a loose head of leaves. This one is by far our favorite. It has a nice “leafy” leaf, but also has a really crispy stalk.
- Black-Seeded Simpson– this is a leaf lettuce that has a great taste and is also an open pollinated so you can save seeds.
- Larry’s Red Leaf – We really don’t know the name of this variety it’s a tasty red leaf lettuce. It is an open pollinated variety and a friend of mine gave me some seeds to get me started. So we named it after him
- Oak leaf
- Red leaf lettuce
How to protect lettuce from heat in Late Summer?
If your summers are anything like ours then 60 days before your first frost is probably still pretty hot! In August we have at least 10 days over 100 degrees. That can be rough on new lettuce plants. So you do need to baby those seeds and seedlings a bit when growing lettuce in the fall.
First off be sure to keep your lettuce beds moist. Not soggy wet, but moist so that the newly planted seeds can germinate. Until seeds have sprouted and are a week or so old I may lightly water my lettuce beds twice a day. Once they are established they will do better but still, be sure they get plenty to drink.
A simple frame hoop with some shade cloth on it can also really help your lettuce plants when it is still super hot. This isn’t strictly necessary but it sure can help.
Another method we use to defeat the late summer heat is to start our lettuce indoors in our seed starter. If you do this, it’s easier to control the environment that your lettuce grows up in. I use some simple cell packs and thin to one plant per cell.
I keep them indoors for 4 to 6 weeks, fertilize them once a week with a good organic fertilizer and they will be ready to go out just a few weeks before your first frost. This method also had the added benefit of producing a very pretty finished product. It’s easy to plant a nice neat bed of individual plants that will look fantastic all fall!
How to Protect lettuce from early winter cold?
Lettuce is hardy, but it’s not super hardy. It can handle a few nights of frost but will quickly turn to mush if it sits out unprotected for too many evenings with temperatures below freezing. Simple protection is all it takes to get your crop to last well into the late fall and early winter.
Try buying some fabric row cover. This simple and inexpensive garden tool can really save your lettuce from a cold night. The heavier row cover fabrics can protect your crops for up to 6 to 8 degrees. This means your lettuce will be snug and warm on nights as low as 26.
For even more protection try a hoop house or even better a cold frame. Either of these simple structures will keep you growing lettuce in the fall well into the days when you have temperatures as low as 20 degrees! You can learn more about Hoop houses and cold frames by following these links. The links will hook you up with some posts I wrote on using both. You can also go here to see a great post on how to build a really nice cold frame.
All great things must come to an end. The lettuce harvest usually comes to an end when nighttime temperatures reach that 20-degree mark (even in a cold frame). So if it looks like your nighttime temperatures are going to drop below that mark and stay there for a few days then it’s time to harvest the rest of your lettuce and bring it in and put it in the fridge. Most lettuces will stay good in the fridge for at least another two weeks. Giving you tons of crunchy salads well into December.
If you would like to learn more about extending your growing season then you should check out my Year-Round Gardening Video Course!