How to Grow Lettuce Like A Professional Gardener

Lettuce is a simple vegetable to grow. Actually, it’s much less expensive than getting those salad bags from the corner shop! And don’t forget that you can even grow a wider variety than you can buy in-store. Lettuce is available in many different sizes, colours, and textures.

closeup tp lettuce on dark wooden table

It is one of the few vegetables that can grow well in partial shade and can last for weeks during the mild weather of Spring and Autumn. You’ll have all the ingredients for a tasty, colourful salad bowl if you cultivate a few varieties, similar to growing cabbage. So, what are these varieties? And how can you grow them? Is it really that simple to grow to begin with? And what exactly are the downsides, if any? Let’s find out!

 Types of lettuce

There are certainly many varieties of lettuce to choose from and all are capable of being grown in the UK, some of which differ only marginally in size or harvest time. Basically, you can divide them into five distinct groups:

1.  Loose Leaf Lettuce

Loose-leaf varieties are typically green, oak and red such as lollo rossa. Since the leaves branch from a single stem, they don’t have a “head.” As a result, leaf lettuce tends to be more perishable than head lettuce. Because of its tenderness, it’s commonly used in “baby lettuce,” mesclun, and spring mixes. Red leaf is burgundy in colour and has a mild taste similar to a green leaf; whereas, oak leaf is spicier and nuttier. To stop wilting, wait until just before serving to dress the leaf lettuce.

2. Iceberg Lettuce (also known as Crisphead Lettuce)

Iceberg lettuce in soil

While it is crisp and hearty, it lacks the flavour of other lettuces. It can be kept unwashed in a plastic bag in the fridge for up to two weeks, which is twice as long compared to others. Look for heads that are firm, tightly packed, and heavy for their size. Try chopping iceberg into wedges and serve it as a steakhouse salad, with a little dressing drizzled on top.

3. Romaine Lettuce

The humble Romaine lettuce, when compared to its cousin kale, is richer in folic acid, a water-soluble source of Vitamin B. It is a nutrient-dense vegetable that is high in minerals and antioxidants, while it only has 10 calories per cup. It’s a cool-season crop that you can grow in the early spring or late summer. 

4. Stem lettuce 

It’s also known as asparagus lettuce, celery lettuce, and wosun in Chinese grocery stores. It is distinguished from other varieties by a dense edible stem that is 15-20 cm long. It is also known as Chinese lettuce and is commonly cultivated in China. The mild flavour of stem lettuce is often characterised as “nutty cucumber”. The tough exterior of the stem lettuce should be peeled away, which is not difficult as you can use a knife or a peeler which would expose a crisp, delicate, and mild interior. It is possible to eat the interior cooked or raw. 

Many steam lettuce

5. Butterhead lettuce

Boston and Bibb are examples of this group of lettuce, which have a loose-head and grass-green leaves. Both have a sweet, mild taste and a light “buttery” feel. Butterhead lettuce grown hydroponically is becoming more popular in supermarkets. The roots of the heads are preserved by keeping them submerged in water in a small recess at the bottom of the clear plastic packages. Although the heads are more expensive, they have a very long shelf life in the fridge up to a month if the roots are kept moist. If you only need a few lettuce leaves at a time, say for a sandwich or something, hydroponic lettuce can be a time saver. 

When is the right time to plant lettuce?

The right time to plant is very much dependent on when exactly you wish to harvest. Generally speaking, lettuces should be grown in full sun and in moist soil. From late March to late July, sow outside for a beautiful vegetable garden

You can get started and sow lettuce indoors in seed trays as early as February and plant out in early March under cloches, plastic tunnels, row covers or horticultural fleece for an earlier crop in summer. You can grow lettuce in containers, raised beds and growing bags as well. Just make sure to water them regularly.

 Preparing the planting site

Before sowing seeds or planting seedlings, it is important to prepare the soil. The soil should be dug thoroughly, and the surface should be raked to a fine tilth and fairly even to level your garden. You may consider using mulch to keep the ground cool and retain moisture. You can also add a small mist of overhead irrigation to cool the plant. As mentioned before, lettuces would best grow in partial shade as well as direct sunlight; therefore, choose a sunny location. Six hours of sun or so a day should serve the purpose.

woman gardening growing lettuces in field

Planting your own lettuce step-by-step

So, are you ready for your own homegrown lettuce? The individual sowing and planting methods gardening tips below should give you an insight into how to get started:

  1. 1.   If you want to start your lettuce seeds indoors, moisten the potting mix or peat pellets Otherwise, use your trowel to loosen up the top part of the soil in your garden and scrape any weeds, big rocks, and sticks before directly sowing them.
  2.   Decide on how many seeds to plant. Since lettuce seeds are so tiny, planting them in rows apart from one another is far simpler than trying to get the spacing for each one just correct. If you use fresh lettuce seeds, plant one seed per hole. Otherwise, use 2-3 lettuce seedlings per hole if they are old, and thin the seedlings as needed later.
  3.   Scatter seeds over the loose garden soil or indoor trays in your polytunnel, cold frame or windowsill for the best results. Since they need light to germinate, do not plant them deeper than half a centimetre. When you water them, you can just leave them on top and let them work their way in.
  4.   At this point, you can start watering them. Once you’ve sown all of your lettuce seeds, make sure you end up with the soil moist, but not foggy. Use the lowest setting on your garden hose over your beds, or water the trays from the bottom, to avoid displacing the lightweight seeds.
  5.   This is optional, but you may consider covering the seed trays indoors with a plastic dome lid and putting them in a light place with a temperature between 18°-23° C. A thermometer allows you to track the soil temperature. To ensure uniform germination, hang a light right over the trays.

 How to properly harvest your lettuce

Harvesting lettuce will slightly vary depending on which type you’ve chosen to develop. As a general rule of thumb, remove whole heads or individual leaves with a sharp knife or garden pruner.

  As far as leaf lettuce is concerned, you’ll need to cut it off when it is around 10 to 20 centimetres tall. You can snap it off with your fingers, but the use of scissors in such a case is highly recommended.

  If you planted Romaine or Iceberg, then you will want to wait until their heads are the size you wish them to be. Once ready, cut them off at the soil with a sharp knife. As soon as you finish harvesting your lettuce, place the heads in a larger basket so they don’t bruise while being transported from the garden to your kitchen.

  Make sure to remove the core as well as any dark or damaged places.

woman's hands holding growing lettuce

How to store your lettuce properly

Now that you are done with harvesting, it is critically important to know how to store the new leaves and keep them green, and fresh. The disadvantage to growing your own lettuce is that if you don’t properly store it, you risk ingesting dirt and bugs.

  1. Fill a plastic bag halfway with dry lettuce. To keep the lettuce crisp, place a paper towel over it to absorb any remaining moisture.
  2.   Hot weather can cause bolting, so keep lettuce cold and moist at 0°- 5°C with 95 per cent relative humidity. You may keep lettuce for up to one week in an open bag in the vegetable drawer of the fridge. Under ideal conditions, Iceberg lettuce can be stored for two weeks.
  3.   Apples, pears, and bananas should not be stored with lettuce. These fruits release ethylene gas, a natural ripening agent, which causes brown spots and decay to your lettuce.
  4.   Wash the lettuce with cold water right before use. Then, dry it with a towel to remove excess water.

 Pests and diseases you need to know of

While the majority of lettuce varieties are relatively easy to grow, they can still be prone to pest attacks that can cause irreversible harm. They will not be eradicated, but their vigour will be severely diminished. Here is a run-down of the most common lettuce pests:

closeup to growing lettuce in the garden

1. Aphids

They add a quadruple insult to injury, to say the least. First, they begin by sucking water and nutrients from plant tissue, causing leaf curling and the death of young plants. Second, they are sometimes parasitised, and most dead aphids do not wash away from the leaves. Third, they serve as virus vectors, aiding in the spread of diseases such as lettuce mosaic. Finally, they leave a lot of honeydew on the outer leaves, which encourages the development of sooty mould. Getting rid of aphids can be easy, if you know the right way to treat them.

2. Caterpillars

They are the most destructive category of insect pests that invade lettuce. They include several different types of cutworm, armyworm, corn earworm, and cabbage looper. Each type has its own feeding habits foraging on different parts of the lettuce, but the end result is the same.

3. Thrips 

Thrips can attack the entire lettuce plant at any stage of development, resulting in leaf malformation. They can also transmit diseases to lettuce.

4. Leaf Miners

Leaf miners lay eggs on the upper surface of leaves, which hatch into maggots.

5. Beetles

They are mostly soil infecting and they feed on the root of the plant when hatching their larvae in the soil.

6. Slugs and Snails

They invest in young green lettuce. During the day, they can be found hiding among boards, plant debris, weeds, stones, ground cover, and anything else that is near to the ground. As a result, it is important to keep the area around the lettuce shoots clean to keep them away. Drip irrigation can also be used to minimise humidity and damp areas where they mostly gather. Do you want to get rid of slugs and snails? There is nothing that slugs and snails dislike more than plants such as geraniums, nasturtiums, fuchsias, begonias, lavender, rosemary, and sage. Therefore, having these plants within or near lettuce rows is highly recommended.

Growing lettuce in the field

All in all, many people are, generally speaking, concerned with two factors when it comes to grocery shopping and food: price and convenience. However, when you consider where that food came from and whether or not any chemicals may have been used by the farmers, you might opt to grow your lettuce.

It is indeed a real treat, and worth the effort as planting lettuce is easy and simple. The advantages are threefold: the freshness is unrivalled, the taste is noticeably better due to the ability to “pick and plate,” and the safer salad greens. So, flavour, freshness, and food safety. You cannot beat it, can you?

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