Here’s your guide to growing your very own organic lettuce plants from seed.
Lettuce Is the Easiest Cool-Season Crop You Can Grow
Did you know you can grow lettuce plants outdoors for at least 6 months of the year?
Here in Central Texas, our lettuce growing season runs during our period of cooler weather from fall to early spring. If you live in a colder climate, you’ll have two opportunities to grow lettuce: once in the early fall and again in the spring, until warm weather arrives.
Follow along for everything you need to know to experience the magic of homegrown lettuce.
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The Best Lettuce Varieties to Grow at Home
The fact that you can find seed packets for so many different types of lettuce than what you can find in the produce aisle is the biggest benefit of growing lettuce at home. I love seeds from Renee’s Garden because I get great germination and grow really strong, healthy plants. Listed below are some of my favorite varieties.
Container Lettuce Varieties
If you don’t have raised garden beds set up yet, there are so many lettuce varieties that are suited to grow in containers. Here are three options that will give you the most well-rounded, beautiful salad bowl you could imagine.
Sweetie Baby Romaine – This romaine lettuce is bred to be compact but extra juicy and crisp. If you wait to grow full heads, the entire plant will still only be about 6 to 8 inches tall. (For reference, normal romaine can grow up to 20 inches tall!)
Garden Babies Butterhead – This is a baby butterhead lettuce that produces little rosettes of super sweet leaves.
Ruby & Emerald Duet – Seed mixes like this one are a great way to try different flavors, and in this case, you get a sweet baby butterhead with a ruffled and mildly bitter mini red leaf lettuce.
Baby Leaf Varieties of Lettuce
These varieties are designed to be harvested as smaller and more flavorful counterparts to the traditional types.
Heirloom Cutting Mix – This is a delicious blend of “antique” lettuce types. You can begin cutting their colorful leaves in just 35 days once the plants have grown about 4 inches tall.
Baby Oakleaf – Oakleaf lettuce is a great example of a variety you might not experience from store-bought salad bags.
Baby Leaf Blend – This curated mix of green and red loose-leaf lettuces is designed to be harvested while the leaves are tender and young to create more exciting salads.
Heading Lettuce Varieties
Heading lettuces form tight heads or leafy rosettes like little lettuce bouquets. The grocery store might have you thinking you can only harvest these lettuces once they’ve grown a complete head, but you can actually cut the outer leaves any time you want during the plant’s growth, just as you would a loose-leaf lettuce.
Queen of Crunch – This crisphead lettuce variety produces really crisp leaves that are great for chopped salads or lettuce wraps.
Jericho – This heirloom romaine lettuce produces a full head of elongated leaves. Romaine is perhaps the most popular type of lettuce out there, and for good reason. Its leaves are good for so much more than caesar salads.
Ruby Gem – This baby romaine variety grows 6-inch tall tightly folded heads with green hearts and bright red tops.
For more lettuce seed options, shop here.
The Best Time to Grow Lettuce
Lettuce plants thrive in cooler weather. Here in Central Texas, our cool season runs from about November to mid-March. If you live somewhere with a true winter, lettuce will be the perfect spring and fall crop.
If you’re sowing lettuce seeds outdoors in late summer when the temperature is still above 85°F, put them in a spot with some shade from a taller plant already established in your garden or use a shade cloth. Lettuce seeds germinate much better when the soil temperature is lower.
Lettuce can tolerate cold weather, but if you’re expecting a hard freeze and want to continue enjoying your plants, consider using frost cloth or floating row covers to protect them.
Where to Grow Lettuce
You can grow lettuce in raised beds or in a container. Because lettuce plants have a shallow root system, you only need a container with at least 6″ of depth. Make sure that whichever container you choose has good drainage holes so that the roots don’t sit in water for too long. An easy way to prevent your soil from washing out the bottom with excess water is to place a piece of weed barrier cloth or a coffee filter to the bottom of the container.
You can grow lettuce outdoors, on a partially shaded patio, or even indoors near a sunny south facing window since these plants do not need full sun like fruit-bearing ones. If growing indoors without good window light then you will need to invest in some grow lights to help your lettuce do it’s best indoors.
Lettuce loves fertile soil that’s rich in organic matter. If you’re growing in a container, you can mix potting soil with compost to ensure you get the best-tasting leaves. (Check out some quick buying options for shallow containers in our Amazon Shop.)
How to Grow Lettuce from Seed
You can sow seeds directly into your raised bed or container. I draw a little trench in the soil with my finger and then space each lettuce seed four to six inches apart. Wait until you’ve sown all the seeds to gently pinch the soil back in place over the seeds—that way, they’re only very finely covered with soil.
You also have the option to scatter your seeds over the planting space before lightly covering them with compost, but if you plant this way, just make sure to harvest outer leaves frequently so that each plant still has good air circulation. This is the best option if you only want to harvest baby leaves for quick salads.
If you want to get a head start on your salad garden season, you can also start seeds indoors under a grow light. (Explore my indoor seed starting guide.) Because lettuce grows so quickly and because lettuce seedlings, with their shallow roots, don’t love to be moved, I typically just wait until better weather. I avoid buying lettuce starts from my local garden center for the same reason.
Dry soil is the enemy of lettuce. Seeds need consistent soil moisture to germinate and then grow. Be ready to add water to your garden daily, especially during that first week. Note that containers dry out faster than raised beds.
If you plan to harvest entire lettuce heads, consider succession planting, or sowing more seeds every week or two, so that you’ll have a more continual harvest.
How to Tend Lettuce Plants
The two most important tasks to keep your lettuce happy are consistent watering and protecting the leaves from the weather.
Keep the soil moist for your new seedlings until they develop some longer roots. Once your lettuce plants are more established, check the moisture level in the soil; if it’s dry 1″ down, water deeply at soil level.
If you’re expecting a freeze, here’s how to protect your plants from cold snaps for best results. And if you’re expecting high temperatures (anything over 80 degrees fahrenheit), move your plants to partial shade or use shade cloth over the garden to prolong your enjoyment of your lettuce plants.
How to Harvest Lettuce
Baby greens can be ready for harvest in as little as 28 to 40 days, depending on the variety. You’ll obviously have to give plants like romaine lettuce or iceberg lettuce a bit longer if you want a full head of lettuce, but you can harvest outer leaves from them while you’re waiting. You might prefer the flavor of younger, smaller lettuce leaves if you’re eating them in a salad, while larger leaves are ideal for lettuce wraps.
The best time to harvest lettuce is early in the morning when the water content in the leaves will be the highest. Make sure to use a clean pair of pruners or scissors.
There are three different methods for harvesting lettuce leaves:
1. You can cut the older, outer leaves of the plant and leave the younger leaves in the center to continue growing. You can return to harvest from the same plant in seven to ten days after it’s recovered and grown new leaves. Cutting and coming again is the best method for young plants and gives you lots of small harvests of fresh lettuce leaves for a longer period of time than waiting to harvest the entire plant at once.
2. You can harvest all of the leaves from the plant by grasping a handful of leaves and cutting horizontally, making sure to leave about one to two inches of stem near the base of the plant. Like the first method, this is a cut-and-come-again way to harvest, but you’ll have to give the plant a couple of weeks to regrow its leaves. You’ll get about three more harvests from the same plant with this method. This is the best way to harvest lots of leaves at once from loose-leaf types.
3. If you’re growing a type of lettuce that forms a head, like romaine, AKA cos lettuce, you can harvest the entire head of mature plants at once by cutting the plants at the base with a clean pair of pruners. You can either plant more seeds afterward, or if you’re nearing the end of your cool season, prepare your container to grow something else (like arugula or mizuna).
What to Do When Lettuce Plants Bolt
Hot weather or too many hours of direct sunlight that comes with the lengthening days of early summer can cause lettuce to bolt, or start putting its energy toward producing seeds. You’ll know your plants are bolting when they grow tall suddenly and then form flowers.
Some lettuce varieties, like romaine, for instance, will also produce a white sap when they’re nearing the end of their time in your vegetable garden. Fun fact: this sap is called lactucarium, from the Latin word for milk, and this is actually how we got the scientific name for lettuce: Lactuca sativa.
You can still eat the leaves of bolting lettuce plants until you find the flavor too bitter to enjoy. (The milky sap is perfectly safe to eat too.) Then, it’s time to pull the entire plant and grow something else.
A homegrown salad bar right in your backyard just can’t be beat (especially not by a plastic bag of iceberg from the grocery store). We hope this guide has you clipping leaf after leaf in no time this cool season!
If you need a little help setting up your growing space, we’d love to do an in-person or virtual consultation to get you started with your lettuce and other favorite plants.
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