Saturday, August 10, 2013

Episode 13: Wherein Organigirl Leafs No Details Out About Growing Lettuce

Among the most important staple vegetables of my garden, lettuce is certainly a favorite. It isn’t as glamorous as say, chard or corn, but lettuce becomes a canvas for all of the other veggies in my garden when a salad is on the dinner menu. Besides, chard and corn are both needy - like a best friend who always seems to have a problem and never cares a bit about yours! And don’t be fooled into thinking that all lettuce is drab and flavorless. There are an abundance of varieties of lettuce waiting to be grown in your garden with names like Tom Thumb, Flame, and Little Gem that look and taste nothing like boring old Iceberg - which tastes exactly like what I imagine an iceberg tastes like - water. Exciting! Wait... nope!

If you haven’t yet tried to grow lettuce in your garden, you may be pleasantly surprised not only by the flavors and textures of home grown lettuce, but also by how seriously easy it is. At the very least, it’s worth it just so you can throw a dinner party and make your guests uncomfortable by proudly announcing that you put your own blood and sweat into the growing of the lettuce they’re eating. They’ll probably be a little put off, but hey - that’s just more delicious homegrown lettuce for you!

This year my lettuce seems to have become a favorite of various garden pests (including wasps, which has me baffled), but there has always been plenty of it- I never seem to run out of lettuce because it keeps growing and growing until it bolts - and then it’s time to plant more anyway! Unless you live in a climate with cold winters - in which case a heated greenhouse might give you the year round lettuce you’ve always dreamed of (or am I the only one who dreams about year round lettuce?).

Planting Lettuce

If you examine lettuce seed packets and compare them to gardening books, you may find that they don’t always agree on how deep to plant the lettuce seeds. Some sources say to surface sow the seeds and barely cover and other sources say to plant them at a depth of ¼”- 1/2”. Having tried planting lettuce using both methods I can safely say that surface sowing was a total bust! Plan to plant lettuce seeds at a depth of ¼”-1/2”. Before you plant your seeds, you may want to install drip irrigation. Rows of lettuce should be planted about 8”-10” apart, depending on the variety, so install your drip irrigation lines 8”-10” apart and then plant along the irrigation lines. Using your finger or a garden trowel, create a small trench in the soil about ½” deep. Place your seeds all along the trench and then cover with soil. Head lettuces should be seeded more sparingly while cut and come again lettuces can be sown heavily if you plan to harvest them a few leaves at a time rather than taking the entire plant at once.

If growing a cut and come again lettuce such as Lollo Rossa (a favorite of mine offered through Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds), you can plant very close together. You can forgo the rows altogether, in fact, and just seed your entire raised bed! Lettuce can also be planted in containers and because of its shallow root system, lettuce doesn’t need a very deep pot to grow in. Cut and come again varieties are ideal for growing in containers because you can fill the entire container with lettuce rather than wasting space in between lettuce heads.

Lettuce seedlings snuggled right up next to their drip lines.


Lettuce likes consistent water. My lettuce is watered with drip irrigation for about 30 minutes each morning and it does well. You might want to hand water lettuce for a few days after planting the seeds, but once the sprouts appear you can leave it to the drip irrigation, which should suffice. When hand watering, use a misting or otherwise very gentle spray to avoid blowing the seeds to kingdom come, and do so until the soil is wet about 1” down (which you can check by sticking your finger in the soil away from your rows). Note that lettuce likes consistent and regular watering and will bolt (go to seed) if it isn’t watered regularly (or if the outside temperature is hot for too long). Shading lettuce plants can prevent early bolting if the outside temperatures are high.


When lettuce seedlings have grown to a couple of inches tall, thin head lettuces to about 6-8” apart (depending on the variety) to allow adequate room for the heads. Cut and come again lettuces probably won’t need thinning. You can use the thinnings for an early salad or just munch as you go (although rinsing any produce - even produce from your garden - is always the best practice).


For cut and come again lettuces, simply take what you want, leaving about 1” at the bottom of the plant so the lettuce can regrow. For head lettuces, cut the entire head at ground level. Some head lettuces can also be cut a couple inches from the ground and will regrow, and still others will continue growing happily even if you take a few outer leaves. Be sure to learn about the varieties of lettuce you’re planting so that you know the best way to harvest it.

Lollo Rossa and Tom Thum Lettuce.


Two excellent varieties to start with are listed below. They are both available from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. For more information about the differences between heirloom and hybrid seeds, check out Episode 4: Wherein Organigirl Teaches You About the Differences Between Hybrid, Non-Hybrid, Heirloom, and Genetically Modified Seeds.

Tom Thumb: Tom thumb lettuce is a head lettuce that produces beautiful bright green heads about 8” in diameter. The taste and texture is excellent and the heads are the perfect size for two large portions of salad or four small portions. I grow Tom Thumb every year. Harvest this variety by cutting the head at ground level.

Lollo Rossa: Lollo Rossa is a cut and come again leaf-type variety with beautiful red tips. Lollo Rossa doesn’t need to be grown in rows and is a great choice for containers. Or, try alternating rows of Tom Thumb and Lollo Rossa for a pretty pattern in your lettuce garden. Lollo Rossa can be harvested by the leaves. Cut an inch or two from the base and it’ll keep growing. My head lettuces are beginning to bolt already, but the Lollo Rossa is still going strong! We love the flavor and the delicate texture of this lettuce. It also makes a nice salad on it’s own or in combination with Tom Thumb lettuce.

Lettuce Basics:
Depth to Plant Seeds: 1/4"-1/2"
Seed Spacing: Most varieties 8-10"; Romaine 10", leaf lettuce 1/2" apart (very close!) or 8" if allowing to grow to full sized heads.
Row Spacing: See "seed spacing" above.
Watering: Water evenly.
Special Considerations: Lettuce likes some shade when the weather turns hot. Shading lettuce during the hotter time of the year can keep it from bolting (going to seed) as quickly as it would otherwise.

For more basic planting information on different garden vegetables, check out my Vegetable Growing Guide.

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