Growing Lettuce from Sowing to Harvest

, written by Benedict Vanheems gb flag

Lettuce comes in a variety of shapes and colours

It’s quick-growing, fuss-free and can be grown just about anywhere. What am I talking about? Lettuce of course! Whether you’re growing it for sweet, firm hearts or to create a pick-and-mix of leaves, you won’t want to run short of this dependable salad. And if you fancy growing more of it you’re in the right place, because here’s our sowing to harvest guide to lettuce!

Types of Lettuce

Lettuce needs little introduction. Grown for its luscious leaves, there’s a cornucopia of both hearting and loose-leaf varieties to explore. Lettuces that form dense heads for harvesting whole include creamy butterhead types, upright romaine and cos lettuces and the classic, crunchy iceberg. Looseleaf lettuces can be harvested whole or a few leaves at a time, ‘cut-and-come-again’-style. Choose from the classic salad bowl lettuce, handsome oakleaf types or any number of other colorful leaves that’ll brighten vegetable beds and ornamental borders alike.

Where to Grow Lettuce

Grow lettuce in any well-drained, fertile soil. Soil improved over time with plenty of compost is ideal. Or grow lettuces in pots or tubs of potting soil. Lettuce prefers a bright, open position with good air circulation to promote strong, disease-free growth.

“Shade
Shade cloth being used to reduce temperatures for cool-season crops such as lettuce

Lettuce is a cool-season crop, so in hot climates you may get better results growing it in a cooler, shadier spot, especially as the young plants start out. Either way, lettuces don’t take long to reach maturity, which makes them an excellent choice for growing in-between slower-to-establish crops such as corn or leeks.

When to Sow Lettuce

Make the earliest sowings under cover from late winter to grow on in greenhouse or hoop house beds for a super-early harvest. Then from early spring it’s time to sow for growing outside. You can use our Garden Planner to check exactly what months you can sow in your area because it uses your nearest weather station to ensure the accompanying Plant List is tailored to your location.

Sow in batches, about once a month, for a continuous harvest. The last sowing of the season, made at the end of summer, will be of winter lettuces. These hardy plants will happily sit out the winter, often with little or no protection in milder climates, to give the first outdoor harvests of spring. Or plant winter lettuces under cover for a reliable supply of leaves throughout the winter.

“Winter
Winter lettuces are surprisingly hardy

Direct Sowing Lettuce

Sowings may be made directly into prepared soil or into module trays of multipurpose potting soil. To sow direct, remove any weeds then rake the soil level to a fine, crumbly texture. Mark out shallow drills, 8-12 inches or 20 to 30cm apart, using a stringline as a guide if this helps. Then sow the tiny seeds in clusters – a pinch of seeds every four inches or 10cm. Backfill the seed drills, label with the variety and water.

Thin the seedlings once they’re up to leave the strongest plant at each point. Then a few weeks on, thin again to leave plants either eight inches – that’s 20cm apart, or 12 inches, 30cm apart.

Sowing into Plug Trays

“Starting
Starting lettuce seedlings in plug trays can protect from slugs

Alternatively sow into module trays of multipurpose potting soil. Fill the trays, firm the potting soil then sow a scant pinch – about three to five seeds – into each plug, onto the surface. Cover the seeds with the very finest layer of potting soil then water the trays by placing them into a reservoir of water so they can soak up moisture from the bottom. Remove trays once you can see surface is damp. Continue to water whenever the potting soil dries out at the surface. Starting lettuces off in plug trays stops slugs from annihilating seedlings, while giving an arguably neater result at planting time.

The young plants are ready to go into the ground once the roots have filled their plugs. Space them 8-12 inches or 20 to 30cm apart in both directions. Carefully remove the plants from their plugs then dig a hole for each lettuce plant. Firm it in and once you’ve finished planting, water to settle the soil around the roots.

Caring for Lettuce

“Hoop
Hoop houses are used to extend the growing season

Encourage early or late-season lettuces by laying row covers or horticultural fleece over plants to trap valuable warmth. Low polythene hoop houses or tunnels are another excellent way to cheat the seasons.

Water plants in dry weather to ensure robust growth and to prevent your lettuce from bolting, when plants quickly go to seed. Use a sharp hoe to decapitate weeds as they appear, or hoik out the occasional intruder by hand.

Slugs aren’t a major problem when ground is kept weed-free and watering limited to a thorough soaking once or twice a week. But extra measures to keep a check on slugs include beer traps and the removal of shady hiding places like old pots.

“Slug
Slug damage to lettuce

How to Harvest Lettuce

Harvest whole heads of lettuce in one go by simply pulling up the plant from the ground. Lift them just before you need them for best taste and the freshest leaves.

Or enjoy your lettuces over a longer period by cutting just a few leaves from each plant at a time. Called cut-and-come-again harvesting, harvesting like this not only prolongs the cropping period – so individual plants crop for anywhere up to two months – it will also give you many more leaves in total. Simply cut or twist the leaves from the stem, taking care not to damage it. Leave the central leaves untouched to grow on for the next cut.

“Lettuces
Lettuces can be make attractive border plants

With so many leaf shapes and colours, lettuces are a genuine joy to behold! How do you grow yours – in pots, in serried rows, or among other crops? And what varieties are your favorite? Let us know in the comments section below.

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