With news of yet another lettuce related E-coli outbreak, all of us are wondering what we can do to protect our families. Growing your own lettuce is one great solution to the problem.
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Lettuce has been in the news a lot over the last year or so. In the United States and Canada, we have had 2 major outbreaks of E-Coli contamination related to lettuce crops. Both times the problem was with Romaine lettuces but could have easily occurred with any type of leafy green. A simple way to combat this problem is to grow your own lettuce.
Growing your own lettuce is fairly simple, and with the right varieties, you can have lettuce growing in your garden for 8 or more months of the year. Let’s take a look at how to grow lettuce in your garden. In this article I’m going to cover the types of lettuces you can grow. The best practices for growing your own lettuces and a few hints on how to expand your lettuce growing season into the colder and hotter months.
Growing Your Own Lettuce
Lettuce is a Cool Season Crop
First off it is important to understand that lettuce is cool season crop. That means it likes to grow the best in the cool times of the year. Spring and fall are really the best times for growing lettuce. Having said that, it is possible to grow lettuce in the summer and we will discuss that below and it is also possible to have lettuce survive in the winter (if your winters are not too cold). But overall, because lettuce prefers the cool temperatures of fall and spring you will be growing your own lettuce mostly when the temperatures are between about 50 degrees and 80 degrees.
Types of Lettuce
There are 4 main categories of lettuce that you can grow in your garden. Each type of lettuce has its own unique characteristics including taste, texture, and growing conditions.
Head lettuce (aka Iceberg lettuce) is the lettuce we see most often in the grocery store. Commercial producers love head lettuce because it is easy to clean, store and ship. Head lettuces are crisp and crunchy to eat. But head lettuce offers some problems for the home gardener.
First off Head lettuces take a lot longer to grow. Most head lettuces need between 80 to 90 days to grow to maturity. That is a pretty long growing period for a crop that is so sensitive to both heat and cold. In our zone 6 garden, both our spring and fall are just too short to grow head lettuce. The time frame where we have optimal temperatures for growing lettuce is just too short here for head lettuce. Most gardeners that live in the northern latitudes will find this to be a problem. When lettuce is grown in the heat 3 things happen, first you will often get tip burn (the browning of the leaf tips). Second heat causes lettuce to taste bitter. Third heat causes lettuce “bolt”, which means it puts out seed heads which ruins the taste and texture of lettuce.
The other disadvantage of head lettuce is that is is the least nutritious of the 4 types of lettuce. Iceberg lettuce is pale green, it’s color is a sure sign of its lack of nutrients. The darker reds and greens of the other types of lettuces mean that they have many more nutrients.
Overall my advice is that home gardeners just don’t bother with head lettuces, too much work (and space) for not enough reward.
Leaf lettuces are just like they sound. The plants never form any type of head at all and only produce loosely bunched leaves.
Leaf lettuces are the easiest type of lettuce to grow. They require little attention and do well even in less than ideal conditions. Leaf lettuces can grow very close together and harvested when the leaves are young and tender. They also are a “cut and come again crop” meaning that you can cut the leaves of the plant down to about one inch and they will regrow. You can usually do this at least one or two times over a season.
Leaf lettuces come in an amazing array of colors, shapes, and textures. There are literally hundreds of varieties out there to try. Make sure you try something new each year along with your old favorites.
My experience has shown that most leaf lettuces are also the first to succumb to both cold and heat.
Butter-head or Bib Lettuces
Butter-head lettuces (Sometimes also known as bib or Boston lettuces) are the halfway point between a head lettuce and a leaf lettuce. These happen to be my personal favorite. They form a loose head with dark leaves, the tops of which will remind you of a leaf lettuce. But the lower portion of the leaves and especially the center of the head are nice and crunchy!! Just the perfect combination.
Again there are many different colors, sizes, and textures of Bib lettuces. My goal is to try them all someday!!
Bib lettuces seem to hold up a little longer to heat in the late spring and also do better in the cold. They are also slower to bolt to seed than leaf varieties.
Romaine or Cos Lettuces
No Caesar salad would be complete without some crunchy Romaine lettuce!! Romaine’s crunchy thick stalks are the perfect replacement for iceberg lettuce in any salad. They are also known as Cos lettuce in some areas.
Our favorite variety is called Paris Island Cos and is a nice dark green leaf with a nice firm stalk.
Romaines are a bit more finicky to grow. They require more time and space than leaf and bibs. So it’s a good idea to get them started indoors about 6 weeks early and plant them out a couple of weeks before the last frost.
Lettuce Growing Requirements
Soil for lettuce
Although growing your own lettuce in poor soil is possible it is best to grow it in rich, well-drained soil. Lettuce likes a soil that has been amended with plenty of compost. This adds nutrients to the soil and helps the soil retain moisture.
Lettuce plants are made mostly of water. So they need lots of moisture. Growing your own lettuce requires that you keep the soil moist (but not soaking wet) all of the time. So if you live in an area that doesn’t have lots of rain plan on watering twice a week. Mulching around the plants will help to retain water.
Severely water neglected lettuce plants will wilt and die. But lettuce plants that are only moderately dry will look fine, but they will almost completely stop growing. If you want your lettuce plants to live up to their fast growing reputation then you MUST keep them moist!
If you are growing your own lettuce in rich, well cared for soil then you really don’t need to worry about fertilizer at all. If you feel like your soil is a bit lacking then one application of an organic liquid fertilizer may be a wise choice. Fertilize once about midway through the growing period, so somewhere between 30 to 40 days after seed germination. I wouldn’t even bother with fertilizer on leaf lettuce, it’s too fast growing. But romaine’s and butter-heads could use a little.
Space Requirements for growing your own lettuce
Plant all lettuce seeds 1/8 to 1/4 inch deep. (that’s not very deep at all) in rows as close as 8 inches if you don’t need to walk between them. Lettuce tolerates being planted in large, closely planted beds very well!
- “Baby size” Lettuce – if you are planning on harvesting at the “baby” stage, plant any of the varieties as close together as you can in wide beds.
- Leaf Lettuce – For nice well form leaves you should plant seeds about an inch apart and then thin to around 3 inches between plants.
- Butter-head and Romaines – for the “best looking” fully developed heads plant 1 inch apart and then thin to about 6 inches. But they will tolerate closer planting if you are not as concerned about what the final product looks like.
Pests and Diseases
Lettuce is a relatively disease-free plant. Occasionally you may find you have problems with Downy Mildew or Fusarium Wilt. But otherwise, there aren’t a lot of problems.
Pests that love lettuce include Aphids, Cabbage Looper, cutworms, flea beetle, leafhopper, leaf miner, slugs and snails.
Once it’s ready lettuce matures very quickly and moves from the perfect stage to bolting to seed, often before you get a chance to harvest. So consider planting only what you will be able to eat in about 2 weeks time. Then wait 14 days and plant again. Continue to do this throughout your growing season and you will have a continuous supply all season long. Use this succession planting method in both the spring and fall.
Light requirements for growing your own lettuce
Lettuce does well in full sun (10 or more hours) but it also does a good job in part shade. Lettuce does require at least 5 or 6 hours of sun per day so don’t plant it in full shade and expect a big harvest.
Planting lettuce in an area that has 6 to 8 hours of morning sun and a few hours of late afternoon shade will help the plants last longer as the heat of summer approaches. But if you are planting in the fall be sure it is planted in an area of full sun because sunlight becomes a scarce commodity as the fall turns towards winter.
Harvesting your Lettuce
If you are interested in growing “baby” lettuce, depending on your weather conditions you could start harvesting in as little as 3 weeks.
Leaf Lettuce – Leaf lettuce that has been well watered will usually mature to full size in 40 to 50 days.
Butter-head lettuces – Bib lettuces take a little longer to mature, usually 65 to 80 days depending on the variety
Romaine Lettuces – These take around 80 days to fully mature although they can be harvested early.
Iceberg Lettuces – Most Iceberg’s take around 90 days to mature, harvest when heads are firm.
Growing your own Lettuce in the Summer Time
Plant breeders have come up with some fantastic new varieties called, “Summer Crisps”. These lettuces tolerate a lot more heat than most varieties. They resist tip burn, bitterness and bolting. We have grown the variety called Nevada all the way into August with great results. These summer crisp lettuces hold up to our summertime temperatures of slightly over 100 degrees. I honestly don’t know how well they would do for those of you that have extreme temps of over 110. Look for the following varieties:
All summer crisp lettuces would be considered bib or butter-head lettuces
Growing in the winter
Lettuce does pretty well in colder temperatures. This is especially true if you offer them the protection of a Cold Frame or a Hoop house. We have had lettuce last until mid-December in our Zone 6 garden inside a cold frame with temperatures at night as low as 15 degrees. There is even a special breed variety of bib lettuce called Winter Density that holds up even longer.
You will love growing your own lettuce! With proper planning, you can go for months eating salads every day and never buy so much as a leaf from the grocery store.
A New Video Course is on the way!
All of this worry about contamination in the lettuce supply has me really frustrated. So I have decided to film a new video course on growing your own lettuce and other salad crops. I’ve done most of the filming already for the course and it is now in the post-production stage. Barring any unforeseen problems, I should have it ready right about the first of 2019. The course will have over 2 hours of content and resources including a private Facebook group where we will do some live Q&A sessions and share our salad growing successes and failures.
If you are interested in joining this course when it is finished please follow this link and sign up for our email list so you can be the first to know when the course goes on sale.