A Beginners Guide to Growing Lettuce
Updated: Oct 21
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Lettuce is one of the most common vegetables and is versatile, easy to grow and bountiful in its harvest. Growing lettuce in zone 3 is rewarding as it is a great cool weather crop and does well in this climate! Lettuce is a vegetable that is on most of our dinner tables on a weekly basis and so satisfying to grow yourself.
Lettuce Varieties to Grow in Your Garden
When searching for lettuce seeds you will notice a wide variety of options. The most common include:
Romaine - One of the most common varieties of lettuce. A hardy lettuce that can withstand a light frost and does not bolt quickly in heat. Great in salads!
Head Lettuce - The most common head lettuce is iceberg. Lettuce rolls leaves into a ball like cabbage. Outer leaves can be harvested while head forms. Takes longer to mature than most other varieties.
Leaf Lettuce - Mildly sweet with a thinner leaf. It includes many coloured varieties, salad bowl mixes and arugula. These types of lettuce can be harvested very young as baby lettuce.
Butter-head Lettuce - Known for its light 'buttery' texture. Grow in small loosely formed heads.
One of my favourite varieties the past two years is the McKenzie Seeds Summertime lettuce. It is crunchy, sweet and slow to bolt. It does eventually form a head but I have harvested mostly in the leaf stage.
Lettuce grows well in both full and part sun, although excess heat can cause lettuce to bolt (grow a seed head). Once it has bolted it generally tastes bitter and needs to be pulled. If possible chose a slightly shady or cooler location for you lettuce. I have had great success with growing lettuce on the north side of my peas so that as the peas grow they provided shade for the lettuce. This way I am able to keep my lettuce growing and producing all summer long without it going to seed or going bitter.
Lettuce grows quickly from seed and does not need to be started indoors. It can withstand a light frost and can be seeded directly into your garden approximately two weeks prior to your last expected frost. The past couple years I have seeded mine the very end of April. Where I am located, near Calgary, Alberta, this means it gets snow on it but it hasn't seemed to harm the lettuce and I have an earlier harvest this way. It is beneficial to plan succession planting to ensure you have great tasting garden lettuce all summer long! I try to plant a second seeding near the middle of June and a third one the middle of July.
To plant, make a shallow row with a hoe or the end of a rake, drop your seeds into the row, then gently cover with a small amount of soil. Lettuce seeds are tiny and can be difficult to space. Follow the spacing directions on the back of your package. If it is sown too thickly it can be thinned out once it is up and you can see where it is growing too close together. If you thin when the plants are about 3 inches high the leaves are a perfect size for a baby lettuce salad! Just cut off the roots and use the leaves. Spacing lettuce properly will help prevent slugs and slimy, rotting leaves.
Caring for Lettuce
Lettuce needs very little care besides the regular weeding and watering all plants require. As long as lettuce is planted in good garden soil with some compost mixed in it does not require any fertilizer to produce well. Lettuce is not prone to disease but more to pests. Keep an eye out for slugs, aphids and garden pests such as deer and rabbits in your lettuce patch. If you end up with slugs try placing sliced cucumber in an aluminum pie pan as a slug trap. Another option is using Scott's Ecosense Slub-B-Gone.
Whether you are growing a head lettuce or a loose leaf lettuce you can begin harvesting leaves when the plant is small. Gently break or cut off the outside lettuce leaves at the base of the plant and your plant will continue to grow and produce lettuce that can be harvested all summer long. Some varietes can be fully cut down at a one inch level, leaving the roots, and they will grow back. Try with one plant and see how it does. Once romaine or head lettuce appears full grown you can harvest the whole plant, pulling the roots out of the soil, or you can continue just using the outer leaves, leaving the inner leaves and roots to keep on producing. Eventually you will notice your plant send tall seed bolts up and this is when it is finished. If you want to save seeds wait until the seed pods dry up and collect. Otherwise pull the whole plant at this point.
As your plant gets older you may find that the leaves begin to taste bitter. If this happens pull the plant. If there is more than 4 weeks left in your growing season in may be worthwhile to seed more in its place.
To keep your lettuce crunchy harvest early in the day while the temperature is still cool. Try to keep harvested lettuce out of direct sunlight if possible. Soaking lettuce in an ice bath (just as it sounds, cold water with ice in it) for anywhere from a few minutes to an hour will help crisp up the leaves further. Dry and store in a bag in the fridge until you are ready to use.
Companion Plant for Lettuce
Lettuce is one of the few vegetables that grows well next to nearly anything. Plants that may help deter aphids from your lettuce include garlic, chives, onions, marigolds, sunflowers, beets, carrots, strawberries, radishes, asparagus, corn cucumbers, peas, spinach, tomatoes and cilantro.