How to grow lettuce – an easy beginner’s guide
- By: Ashley Saunders
- April 2021
Lettuce is a superb plant to grow as it’s a low-calorie food that widely used. Plus it’s fun to grow lettuce as it doesn’t require much attention. As one of our favourite garden greens, the homegrown varieties taste better than what you’d buy in the supermarket and it’s high in Vitamin A!
As a cool-season crop, it grows best in the spring and always produces a plentiful harvest. Lettuce isn’t very demanding to grow as long as you keep it sufficiently watered. Plus, it grows great in raised beds and containers, making it ideal for small veg patches and gardens.
Available in a wide range of colours, flavours and textures, say no to boring salads! Two main types of lettuce are available: hearting lettuces have a dense centre, while loose-leaf lettuces have open leaves and no heart.
If you’re just starting your vegetable patch, consider if you have space to grow lettuce!
Interesting lettuce facts!
There are hieroglyphic records of lettuce being grown over 6000 years ago.
Calling lettuce “rabbit food” dates back to the 1930s.
Many ancient Greeks believed that lettuce made you sleepy so they served it at the end of the meal!
Between the late 16th century and the early 18th century, many varieties were developed in Europe, particularly Holland.
China is the largest producer of lettuce in the world.
Lettuce is the easiest vegetable to grow hydroponically.
The ideal conditions for growing lettuce are a sunny spot, where plants can get at least 6 hours of sun per day. That said, lettuce will still grow if given fewer hours of sunlight than that.
You’ll want to ensure the soil is loose and drains well so that it’s moist without staying soggy. About a week before sowing seeds or transplanting saplings, work in composted organic matter.
Since lettuce seeds are tiny, you’ll need to spend time to ensure any stones and large clods of dirt are broken up or removed, otherwise, you’ll inhibit germination.
Weeds are another factor to consider when working the soil. Lettuce does not compete well with weeds and so you should plant lettuces close together to control weeds.
As with other vegetables, it’s a good idea to rotate locations and neve plant lettuces in the same spot two years in a row. By practising crop rotation, you actively help to reduce the occurrence of most diseases.
As there are plenty of lettuce varieties, you might wonder which is the best. Thankfully, you can successfully grow lettuce using one of the varieties recommended by the RHS.
This Butterhead variety is a superb choice for summer cropping. Ideal for sowing March to mid-August. It offers excellent resistance to bolting and tolerance to tip burn.
‘Little Gem’ AGM
This is a Cos lettuce with small solid heads and produces a sweet, crisp heart. It has good resistance to root aphid.
‘Lobjoits Green’ AGM
Considered by many to be the best cos lettuce available. Small compact 20cm dense crisp heads with self-folding leaves. Suitable for Spring or Autumn sowing under protection.
This medium-sized iceberg/crisphead variety is ideal for the smaller garden. Heads are dense, round-shaped, compact with few waste outer leaves.
A medium-sized iceberg/crisphead lettuce variety that’s easy to grow. It’s mildew tolerant with attractive tinted leaves which get a deeper red colour as the plant matures.
An heirloom, open-pollinated loose leaved variety that’s noted for frizzy purple-tinged leaves, good “cut and come again” type.
‘Salad Bowl’ AGM
An attractive, high yielding variety that available in both green and red.
You can start sowing seeds outside as early as March and continue sowing until September for a November harvest.
As lettuce seeds need light to germinate, don’t sow them too deep. Ideally, you should plant seeds around 1 cm deep. When your seedlings develop 3 or 4 leaves, then you can start to thin them.
If you’re starting seed inside, wait until they have 4 to 6 leaves and a well-developed root system before transplanting them outdoors. Water thoroughly straight after transplanting.
In your vegetable patch, leave around 40 cm between rows regardless of whether your planting seeds or transplanting young plants. Here is a rough guide for spacing different types of lettuce:
- Loose-leaf lettuce: Plant or thin to 10 cm apart.
- Romaine (cos) and butterhead (loose-head, Bibb, Boston) lettuce: Plant or thin to 20 cm apart.
- Crisphead (iceberg) lettuce: Plant or thin to 40 cm apart.
You might want to consider planting rows of chives or garlic between your lettuce to control aphids. They act as “barrier plants” for the lettuce, stopping pests before they eat your tasty crops.
How to nurture lettuce
As Lettuce prefers soil that is high in organic material, you should add plenty of compost and a steady supply of nitrogen to keep your plants growing fast. You may even want to use an organic slow-release fertilizer.
Keep your soil moist but not overly wet. Thankfully, lettuce will tell you when it needs water! You can tell by just looking at it! If the leaves are wilting, sprinkle them, even in the hottest part of the day.
Use organic mulch to help conserve moisture, suppress weeds, and keep soil temperatures cool throughout the warmer months. If necessary, weed by hand but be careful not to damaged your lettuce plants’ roots.
You should ideally harvest lettuce when it’s a decent size and slightly before it matures as leaves taste best when they’re still young and tender. Harvest leaves by simply removing outer leaves, allowing the inner leaves to continue to grow.
As mature lettuce can get bitter and woody quickly, it’s worth checking your garden daily for ready-to-harvest leaves. The best time to harvest lettuce is in the morning before the plants are exposed to the sun as they will be the crispest.
How to store fresh lettuce
The tastiest lettuce is often the freshest! So, if you’re harvesting right before eating, simply wash it properly to ensure any harmful bacteria and soil is removed.
As lettuce needs moisture and airflow to stay crisp, the worst thing you can do is dry it out and place it in a sealed container. To store a full head of lettuce, wrap it in a damp paper towel and put the head inside a plastic bag. Store in the refrigerator.
If you’re storing individual lettuce leaves, let them dry after washing and place them in a lettuce keeper or container with holes in the bottom, in the fridge.
Avoid storing lettuce with apples, pears or bananas. These fruits release ethylene gas, a natural ripening agent, that causes your lettuce to develop brown spots and decay quickly.
Common pests and problems
Part of growing any vegetables is managing pests and diseases. And sadly, it’s no different when you grow lettuce. Here are the most common issues to look out for as well as how to solve them.
These insects love feeding on vegetables and so are worth watching for when you grow peppers. Look for misshapen or yellow leaves as well as distorted flowers and fruit. You might also spot a large presence of ants on plants.
There’s plenty of ways to make aphids leave your crop along including growing companion plants or ones that repel them (such as basil or rosemary). You can also mix water and insecticidal soap and spray the solution over the plants.
Slugs and snails
Feeding on young seedlings, slugs and snails are easy to identify as you’ll notice slime trail on the soil around your crop, as well as on the leaves. Luckily, it’s easy to stop slugs and snails in their tracks by using sawdust, eggshell barriers or beer traps.
Easy to spot, grey mould (botrytis) starts to appear as pale or discoloured patches. Grey mould is a common disease, especially in damp or humid conditions. Spores enter plants via damaged tissue, wounds or open flowers.
Remove damaged plant parts before they can become infected. Cut out infected areas into healthy tissue and clear up infected debris. If growing in a greenhouse, reduce humidity by ventilating and avoid overcrowding of young plants and seedlings.
This is where plants flower and set seed prematurely. Unless you’re growing for seed, you should sow bolt-resistant varieties. Ensure you sow at the correct time and keep the soil or compost moist.
That’s how to grow lettuce!
After you’ve tried to grow lettuce, it’s worth trying to grow other vegetables such as chard, spinach, and cucumbers. All of these are fairly easy to grow in your veg patch and used in a variety of dishes.