Growing Lettuce in the Home Garden
An ever-expanding selection of greens for salads in the supermarket, as well as salad bars popping up in nearly every restaurant, is a reflection of the new health-conscious eating habits sweeping the United States. Several types of lettuce can be grown in the home garden adding variety, texture and color to the family diet.
Lettuce varieties can be loosely categorized into four groups: crisphead, butterhead, leaf, and romaine or cos. Each group has its own growth and taste characteristics.
Types of Lettuce
Crisphead lettuce is probably the most familiar of the four. It is characterized by a tight, firm head of crisp, light-green leaves. In general, crisphead lettuce is intolerant of hot weather, readily bolting or sending up a flower stalk under hot summer conditions. For this reason, plus the long growing period required, it is the most difficult of the lettuces to grow in the home garden.
The butterhead types have smaller, softer heads of loosely folded leaves. The outer leaves may be green or brownish with cream or butter colored inner leaves. There are several cultivars available that will do well in Ohio gardens.
Leaf lettuce has an open growth and does not form a head. Leaf form and color varies considerably. Some cultivars are frilled and crinkled and others deeply lobed. Color ranges from light green to red and bronze. Leaf lettuce matures quickly and is the easiest to grow.
Romaine or cos lettuces form upright, cylindrical heads of tightly folded leaves. The plants may reach up to 10 inches in height. The outer leaves are medium green with greenish white inner leaves. This is the sweeter of the four types.
Mesa 659 (fall), Ithaca
Black Seeded Simpson
Parris Island Cos
Lettuce is a cool-season vegetable and develops best quality when grown under cool, moist conditions. Lettuce seedlings will tolerate a light frost. Temperatures between 45 F and 65 F are ideal. Such conditions usually prevail in Ohio in spring and fall. Seeds of leaf lettuce are usually planted in the spring as soon as the ground can be worked. Butterhead and romaine can be grown from either seeds or transplants. Due to its long-growing season, crisphead lettuce is grown from transplants. Transplants may be purchased or started indoors about six weeks before the preferred planting date.
Lettuce can be grown under a wide range of soils. Loose, fertile, sandy loam soils, well-supplied with organic matter are best. The soil should be well-drained, moist, but not soggy. Heavy soils can be modified with well-rotted manure, compost, or by growing a cover crop. Like most other garden vegetables, lettuce prefers a slightly acidic pH of 6.0 to 6.5.
Since lettuce seed is very small, a well-prepared seedbed is essential. Large clods will not allow proper seed-to-soil contact, reducing germination. Lettuce does not have an extensive root system so an adequate supply of moisture and nutrients is also necessary for proper development.
Fertilizer and lime recommendations should be based on the results of a soil test. Contact your local Cooperative Extension office for information on soil testing. As a general rule, however, apply and work into the soil three to four pounds of 5-10-10 fertilizer per 100 square feet of garden area.
Seed may be sown in single rows or broadcast for wide row planting. Wide rows should be 12 to 15 inches across. Cover the seeds with 1/4 to 1/2 inch of soil. Water carefully but thoroughly. Several successive plantings of leaf lettuce will provide a more continuous harvest throughout the growing season. Leave 18 inches between the rows for leaf lettuce, and 24 inches for the other types. To achieve proper spacing of plants, thinning of lettuce seedlings is usually necessary. Thin plants of leaf lettuce four to six inches or more between plants depending on plant size. Butterhead and romaine should be thinned six to ten inches between plants. Finally, crisphead transplants should be spaced 10 to 12 inches apart in the row.
An organic mulch will help conserve moisture, suppress weeds, and keep soil temperatures cool. If weeds do become a problem, either pull by hand or cultivate very shallowly to avoid damage to lettuce roots. Planning your garden so that lettuce will be in the shade of taller plants, such as tomatoes or sweet corn, in the heat of the summer, may reduce bolting.
Insect pests and diseases can occasionally cause problems on lettuce. For proper identification and control recommendation, contact your local Cooperative Extension office.
All lettuce types should be harvested when full size but young and tender. Over-mature lettuce is bitter and woody. Leaf lettuce is harvested by removing individual outer leaves so that the center leaves can continue to grow. Butterhead or romaine types can be harvested by removing the outer leaves, digging up the whole plant or cutting the plant about an inch above the soil surface. A second harvest is often possible this way. Crisphead lettuce is picked when the center is firm.
The author gratefully acknowledges James D. Utzinger, on whose original fact sheet this is based.