Lettuce is a must-have for the vegetable garden. It adds bulk and texture to salads and salad sandwiches, and there are many types to choose from to suit your needs. There are amazing varieties that are red, green, speckled or frilly, just the thing to make a spectacular salad to impress your friends and family.
There are many types of lettuce that you can grow in your garden. Probably the two most popular are ‘Crisphead’ types that have a tight ball of leaves that are crunchy and with a very mild taste, and ‘Cos’ types that have a fairly open, tall head of leaves and a slightly stronger taste.
Other types include ‘Butterheads’ that have, as their name suggests, a buttery texture and a soft head, ‘Looseleaf’ that have loose leaves that don’t form a real head. The loose leafed varieties can be harvested one leaf at a time which allows for an extended harvest as you can leave the plant in the ground.
Sowing Your Seeds
Many varieties can be sown all year round but lettuces are cool weather plants and don’t grow well in the heat of summer. If you choose to grow them in summer make sure they have some shade from the hot afternoon sun. You could grow them on the southern side of a bush or place some shade-cloth over them.
Lettuce seeds can be sown directly where you want them to grow, but the problem with this is that it leaves the emerging seedlings vulnerable to the hoards of pests that just love to eat them. It is far better to sow the seeds onto fine soil in a seedling tray or a pot, then just cover them lightly with fine potting soil. They must be sown very shallowly or they won’t come up as they need light to germinate.
Use good potting soil from your garden supplier in your tray or pot, not soil out of your back yard, and water them gently after sowing. Keep them moist but not wet and they will emerge in about seven days.
Most people like to sow a few seeds every couple of weeks so there is always some ready-to-pick lettuces in the garden. This protects you from the problem of having a lot ready at once, then nothing.
When your seedlings are big enough to handle, around the two or three ‘true’ leaf stage (about five centimeters) you can plant them out where you want them. They are really useful plants as they grow just as well in large pots as they do in the ground. They will even put up with dappled or part-shade.
Be gentle with these tender plants and water them in well after they are in the ground.
Lettuces will grow in most well-drained soil but they particularly like it if the soil is slightly on the alkaline side. If your soil is acid you can increase the PH by adding some dolomite or bone meal and dig it in a few weeks before planting your lettuce. A soft, well composted soil is preferable to all sand or heavy clay. If your soil is not ideal you have the option of growing your lettuce in pots or making a raised bed for them.
To keep your lettuce from going bitter you need to grow it quickly. This means adding manure to the soil before planting, and keeping the water up to them as they grow. If they suffer a setback in growth they may go a little bitter or bolt to seed.
Pests, Diseases and Problems
The main pests of lettuces are slugs and snails. These can be controlled by picking them off on wet evenings or mornings then crushing them underfoot. A better alternative for those who don’t like to kill them by hand is to buy or make a plastic snail and slug trap. This is a shallow bowl that is half filled with beer or a sugar and yeast solution, the snails and slugs crawl in overnight and drown.
Harvest depends on the type of lettuce you are growing. For heading types you should pick the plant when the head is tight and full-sized. Butter and loose leaf types can be harvested one leaf at a time. Just go out to the garden and pick the amount of leaves you need, leaving the plant in the ground to keep growing.
Depending on the variety it can take anywhere from 6 to 14 weeks from sowing to become ready for harvest.
Lettuces are one of the easiest and more fascinating edible plants to grow in the vegetable patch. Did you know that lettuce used to be eaten as a medicinal plant to induce sleep? Or that there are ornamental (but still edible) varieties that look right at home among your flowers?
Grow some yourself and notice the difference in flavour and freshness compared to those you buy at the supermarket. Browse lettuce seeds here.