Lettuce is crisp, delicious, refreshing, has excellent texture, and is of course good for you. Lettuce is a cool-season vegetable that thrives best throughout the spring and fall in most planting zones. Tender lettuce seedlings can even tolerate a light frost. Growing lettuce is easy and may be one of the most rewarding crops to grow all year long.
There are four distinct types of lettuce: crisphead, loose-leaf, romaine, and butterhead. By choosing the right lettuce varieties, it is possible to be growing lettuce in your vegetable garden throughout the entire growing season. Enjoy our informative guide on successfully growing lettuce, our recommended lettuce varieties, and how you can bring these delectable crunchy greens from farm to table.
Ideal Soil Composition and pH for Growing Lettuce
Healthy soil results in healthy plants. Lettuce grows and tastes best when grown in soil with a pH level of between 6.0 and 7.0. Amend your garden soil with rich organic materials and well-decomposed compost. Plant in nutrient-rich, well-draining soil for a robust crop. It is essential that the soil is well-tilled and free of clumps and rocks, as lettuce seeds are very tiny, and germination can be compromised if obstructions are present.
Growing Lettuce From Seed
Growing lettuce from seed is simple, as it can be directly sown in the ground or started indoors. To extend the growing season and provide yourself with a continual harvest, you may even want to use both techniques as well as succession planting.
Growing Lettuce in Containers vs. In-Ground Lettuce Planting
The soil in raised beds and containers tends to warm up faster than traditional in-ground gardens. These warmer soil temperatures can give gardeners an earlier start in the spring and extend the growing season later into the fall, providing opportunities for more crop successions. In addition, raised bed or container gardening allows gardeners to control the soil quality better and provide the rich, loose, well-draining soil that lettuce plants crave.
Lettuce can also be grown in the ground, as long as the soil is well-tilled and amended with nutrient-rich soil that is free from rocks and debris.
- Plant loose-leaf lettuce four to five inches apart.
- Butterhead and romaine type lettuce should be planted at least eight inches apart.
- Crisphead lettuce varieties should be planted sixteen to eighteen inches apart.
Lettuce Light and Temperature Requirements
Lettuce grows best when temperatures range from 45 and 65 Fahrenheit. While planting these quick growing crops in full sun will produce leaves more rapidly, too much heat and direct sunlight can also promote the plant’s bolting. Consider picking a sunny spot in the garden, which also has a little bit of shade. Consider companion planting lettuce with some other taller crops like tomatoes, peppers, or corn, providing some beneficial shade protection and saving some space in the garden.
How to Water and Fertilize Lettuce
A key to robust lettuce production is keeping the soil moist but never soggy, especially during hot weather. Lettuce plants should be watered deeply once a week at a minimum. Add mulch around your lettuce plants to ensure even temperature and consistent moisture levels.
To get the most flavor and tenderness out of your lettuce plants, you’ll want them to mature quickly. Ensure that the soil that your lettuce is planted in is rich in nitrogen and potassium for optimal growth. You can work organic matter such as rotted manure or well-decomposed compost into the soil prior to planting each round of crops. An organic fertilizer such as a liquid organic fish and kelp fertilizer can be added three to four weeks after seed sowing or seedling transplant to bolster robust growth. Look for the plant’s first true leaves before adding the initial liquid fertilizer feed, if you are transplanting you can also sprinkle a slow-release organic granular vegetable fertilizer at the bottom of the planting hole, alternating liquid and granular throughout the growing season.
How Long Does it Take to Grow Lettuce?
Looseleaf lettuce has a pretty quick turnaround from seed to harvest, averaging approximately 45 to 60 days. This short maturation period allows plenty of opportunities for succession planting, which can enable gardeners to have a continual supply of lettuce from spring all the way through early winter. Looseleaf lettuce and butterhead lettuce leaves can be harvested at just about any time in their development, while crisphead and romaine varieties take a bit longer to develop fully. Plan to allow romaine and crisphead lettuces 70 to 100 days to harvest the full head.
Lettuce Companion Plants
Common Lettuce Pests and Diseases
- Rabbits – Garden fencing can help keep rabbits and other wildlife from munching on your crops. If fencing is not an option, consider sprinkling blood meal around the perimeter of your garden bed to deter them.
- Aphids – A sharp spray of the hose should be enough to shoo damaging aphids away from your lettuce crop. Utilize companion planting to organically deter these pests. Planting parsley next to lettuce plants can attract aphid predators like wasps. Growing nasturtium in the garden bed will lure aphids away from your tender lettuce leaves.
- Slugs – Stop slugs from eating your plants by laying a pie plate into the soil so that the rim is level with the ground. Pour some beer into the pie plate. The slugs will seek out the beer, and they will not be able to climb out.
- Powdery Mildew – Avoid soggy conditions and be sure to space your plants appropriately to ensure proper airflow.
- Crisphead – Harvest lettuce in the coolness of the morning. When the number of growing days has passed, and before the outer leaves turn brown, cut away the stalk from the head of lettuce. The head of lettuce should be firm to the touch and tightly packed with leaves. Use a sharp knife to separate the lettuce ball from the stem and then remove any unsightly or loose outer leaves. Wash the head of lettuce off in cool water and pat dry. Then store in the refrigerator.
- Looseleaf – When it comes time to harvest loose-leaf lettuce, it couldn’t be easier because you are actually collecting individual loose leaves. Pinch off loose leaves at the base of each leaf when they are about four inches tall and before any stalks form and bolt. Gather leaves and toss in a colander with some cool water to rinse.
- Romaine – When romaine lettuce is mature, you can harvest the whole head at once by cutting the leafy head off from the stem at its base, or you can harvest individual leaves from the outer layer of the head as you need them, leaving the inner leaves to grow and mature. Either way, rinse your romaine lettuce in cold water and pat dry and store in the refrigerator until ready to use.
- Butterhead – Harvest butterhead lettuce just like you would harvest romaine lettuce. When the plant reaches maturity about 50-60 days after planting, you can reap the whole head at once by cutting the leafy head off from the stem at its base.
Growing Lettuce in the Fall and Spring
Garden zones, with their lowest temperatures in the 60s, can reap the rewards of lettuce year-round. Seeds germinate best when temperatures range between 40 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit for most varieties. Lettuce will grow its best when temperatures range between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
In other zones, you can extend your growth earlier in spring or later in the fall by using protective gardening devices such as row covers, greenhouses, or cold frames.
Recommended Lettuce Varieties
Growing Romaine Lettuce
- ‘Little Caesar‘ is the perfect variety of lettuce for Caesar salads! Their tall and trim heads are great additions to small garden beds. This variety produces compact heads that are very crisp, sweet leaves.
- ‘Little Gem‘ produces compact yet robust bright green heads and is a go-to for gardeners who are looking for a firm, crisp romaine variety. It is hardy lettuce with a sweet center.
- ‘Vivian‘ lettuce grows larger than the other varieties we have listed. It produces large, broad bunches of dark green leaves that have a texture that borders on a butterhead variety.
Types of Looseleaf Lettuce
- ‘Black Seeded Simpson‘ can be grown in a wide array of climates and growing zones. It produces early leaves in flavorful light green rippling bouquets.
- ‘Deer Tongue‘ has a uniquely shaped triangular leaf, making for an outstanding variety, texture, and visual interest. This variety is slow to bolt and produces a rosette of leaves, which resembles deer tongues by their shape. It is highly productive and heat-tolerant.
- ‘Ruby Red‘ will add some color, visual interest, and terrific flavor to your lettuce blends. It produces curly leaves that are sweet to the taste.
Growing Butterhead Lettuce
- ‘Bibb‘ produces a nice small head of rosette leaves that is often used as a salad green or as a sandwich wrap.
- ‘Boston‘ is larger than its sister, ‘Bibb,’ but it has similar qualities and uses. Leaves are tender and can bruise easily, but they harbor a lovely sweet taste.
- ‘Yugoslavian Red‘ has stunning variegated red and green leaves and loosely formed leaf heads. They grow well in containers and has a mild, buttery taste that will tantalize any palate.
Crisphead Lettuce Varieties
- ‘Crispino‘ is a great variety that adapts to less than ideal growing environments and can even tolerate climates that are warmer and have more humidity. They produce firm, round heads and have a sweet, mild flavor.
- ‘Great Lakes‘ is a high performing variety that is fantastic in salads and on sandwiches because it has lovely crisp leaves.
- ‘Ithaca‘ lettuce produces a crispy round head and is great for salads and sandwiches. Our favorite part of this variety is that it is slower than other types when forming seed stalks and bolting. This can extend its growing season significantly.