Tips for Choosing the Right Lettuce to Grow at Home

09/04/2018 10:06

This is an excerpt from an article on growing lettuce on Gardner's Path by Amber Shidler.

Most varieties of lettuce are fast-growing and thrive in cooler weather (45-80°F), making them great spring and fall crops for your garden - though you can also grow lettuce in containers, window boxes, or tucked in among flowers.

There are numerous varieties of lettuce with varying leaf shapes, colors, and tastes. But to make things simpler and help you decide which varieties might be best for your own garden, we can effectively break all lettuces into four groups with similar characteristics. Here is an overview of the different types of lettuce you can grow at home, followed by some general tips for raising a great crop.

Loose Leaf Lettuce (Arugula, Endive, Mesclun)

Lots of varieties of loose leaf lettuce

  • Grows as a single stalk instead of as a head
  • Matures in 40-45 days (but you can start harvesting it in just 3 weeks)
  • More heat tolerant
  • Leaves vary in color from red to green and in shape from curly to ruffled
  • Generally the easiest kind of lettuce to grow
  • Harvest the outer leaves with scissors or a sharp knife, and the stalk will continue to produce more leaves
  • Has a stronger taste than most lettuces
  • Has the highest nutritional value

Butterhead Lettuce (Boston, Bibb, Buttercrunch)

Heads of butterhead lettuce

  • Plants are smaller and more stout, forming soft, loose heads
  • Matures in 35-70 days depending on variety
  • If your cool season is short, plant a fast-maturing butterhead variety
  • To harvest, either:
    • Harvest the entire plant all at once at maturity, or
    • Harvest as it grows, taking the outside leaves once they're large (the plant will continue producing new leaves from the center)
  • Tender leaves with a slightly buttery taste, but taste becomes bitter shortly after summer heat sets in
  • When the heat arrives, cut the whole plant off just above the soil

Romaine (or Cos) Lettuce

The telltale elongated head of romaine lettuce

  • Grows up and out of a tight central bunch, forming an elongated head that stands up to a foot tall
  • Matures in 70-85 days
  • Dark green leaves, becoming more pale as you get closer to the center
  • To harvest, wait until the leaves in the center converge to form an obvious (though elongated) head, then cut the entire plant off at the crown
  • Crispy and crunchy, but taste becomes bitter shortly after summer heat sets in

Crisphead Lettuce (Iceberg, Webbs Wonderful)

Iceberg lettuce head

  • Forms a tight, thin-leafed head
  • Matures in around 80 days
  • Less heat tolerant
  • More difficult to grow than other types
  • Has the lowest nutritional value, but stores and transports well

Tips for Growing Any Kind of Lettuce in Your Organic Garden

  • Start early! Lettuce is hardy in colder weather and seeds germinate best when soil temperature is 55-65°F (but anything over 40°F is acceptable)
  • Ideal soil pH for lettuce is 6-7
  • Lettuce likes cooler temperatures so use taller crops like tomatoes and corn to provide shade
  • Sow seeds directly in the garden soil in the early spring (¼" to ½" deep) as soon as the soil is thawed and workable - indoor starters aren't necessary!
  • Cover the seeds with soil, firmly but gently patting the soil with your hand to ensure contact between seed and soil
  • Plant seeds 4-5" apart, but don't worry too much because you can eat the sprouts if you need to thin your rows
  • Keep the soil moist until you see the sprouts come up
  • To ensure rapid growth, do frequent but light watering and make sure each plant has plenty of room around it
  • Use a nitrogen-rich fertilizer like fish emulsion
  • For a continuous yield, you can plant a new batch of lettuce every 10-14 days
  • For a fall harvest, start in August - cool the soil down by watering thoroughly and covering it with natural mulch, and sow seeds a week later
  • Lettuce has a shallow root system, so be mindful when pulling weeds or planting near them
  • The hotter it gets, the more bitter lettuce leaves taste - if it gets too hot and your lettuce hasn't reached maturity, you may need to shade your plants
  • When it gets hot enough, your plants will "bolt" (go to seed) - if this happens, harvest the good leaves immediately
  • Wait to wash the leaves until you are ready to use them (or wrap them loosely in paper towels and store them in the refrigerator for a few days)

For more - including information on fighting pests and disease on lettuce - check out the full article: How to Be Successful with Your Lettuce Patch.

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