Fill your salad bowl with garden-fresh greens all summer long by planting easy-to-grow lettuce. For the cost of a packet of seeds ($1.99-$2.95), you can feast on greens from spring to fall. Compared to the price of packaged salad that serves one meal ($2.50 on sale), raising lettuce reaps big savings for your food budget.
The biggest challenge in growing lettuce is summer heat, which causes plants to set seed early. The start of seed formation, called bolting, releases a bitter taste in leaves. Beat the heat through cultural practices and by stocking your garden with heat-tolerant greens.
A full-sun site is ideal in early spring, but can hasten bolting as summer arrives. Especially in the South, plant lettuce where leaves receive afternoon shade. Another option is to sow lettuce in pots. Wide, low, bowl-type containers work well with shallow-rooted lettuce. Place pots where they receive afternoon shade to slow bolting.
Soil & Fertilizer
Lettuce likes rich, well-drained soil with consistent moisture. Mix compost into soil before planting. Add another layer when seedlings have four leaves. Fill pots with equal parts bagged potting mix, compost, and top soil. Every two weeks, after leaves are 3 inches high, feed lettuce with a water-soluble fertilizer.
Lettuce needs light to germinate. Barely cover seed with soil. Sow seed thickly, thinning when plants reach 2-3 inches high, or sow seeds at the final plant spacing.
For a steady supply of lettuce, practice successive sowing, planting seeds every 10-14 days. Seeds germinate best in cooler weather. To start lettuce in high summer, sow seeds indoors in a cool room, moving seedlings outside when they have 4-5 leaves.
Enjoy thinnings in salad. As plants mature, pick outer leaves first. Eventually harvest the entire clump by pulling or slicing it. To harvest cut-and-come-again lettuces, cut plants one-half inch above soil. Fertilize plants after harvesting. Expect 3-4 cuttings from each sowing before plants die out.
Tips for a Successful Lettuce Crop
- With Mesclun or salad mix blends, shake the packet before sowing.
- For fresh salads in high summer, plant heat-tolerant greens: Romaine types and leaf lettuces (‘Red Sails,’ ‘Black Seeded Simpson,’ ‘Lollo Rossa,’ ‘Lolla Biondo,’ ‘Oak Leaf,’ or ‘Boston Butterhead’). New Zealand Spinach and Malabar Spinach offer heat tolerance and a spinach-style leaf.
- Water early in the day.
- Mulch to cool soil and keep roots moist. Use grass clippings, compost, or pine straw, which deters lettuce-loving slugs.
- For cut-and-come-again types, harvest with a small pair of scissors or a long, thin-bladed knife that slips easily between tightly-spaced plantings.
- Good cut-and-come-again types include most leaf lettuces, such as ‘Black Seeded Simpson,’ ‘Red Sails,’ or ‘Oak Leaf,’ and Romaine types, like ‘Freckles’ or ‘Rouge d'Hiver.’
- Three feet of row in continuous production will fill one adult's individual salad bowl from spring to fall.