Filling Up Spring with Garden Lettuce

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Fast-growing and vibrantly beautiful, garden lettuce begs to be planted repeatedly for as long as cool spring weather lasts. Gardeners can grow a huge range of colorful varieties that are seldom seen in stores, but we do have limitations. Two types of lettuce – big icebergs and tall romaines – can be difficult to grow because hot weather arrives before they reach perfection.

Yet good garden lettuce does not lack crunch. Two English heirloom varieties that should be on every gardener’s life list include ‘Little Gem’, a miniature Romaine with a cute, upright growth habit, and ‘Tom Thumb,’ a baby butterhead that has been pleasing gardeners for more than 150 years. Many Americans would add ‘Buttercrunch’ to this list, because like Tom Thumb, ‘Buttercrunch’ delivers the perfect marriage of crisp ribs and buttery leaves in a compact, nutritious package.

Gardeners often do very well with leaf lettuces because of their heat tolerance and resistance to bolting. Leaf lettuce varieties are so varied that you could garden for a lifetime and still not try all of them. One of the best ways to explore leaf lettuce (sometimes called non-hearting lettuce) is to grow mixtures that include ‘Salad Bowl’ and contrasting varieties like ‘Red Oakleaf’ or ‘Red Sails’; the actual varieties are usually listed on the packet. When properly handled, lettuce seed mixtures intended to be grown as baby leaf lettuce can produce a beautiful tapestry of salad-worthy greens. Compared to other types of lettuce, leaf lettuce is also best for use in companion plantings near broccoli, tomatoes, or other tall vegetables.

Thinning Lettuce

Regardless of the types of lettuce you grow, thinning lettuce seedlings is a task that must be done again and again. If you think of lettuce leaves as solar collectors, your job is simple – keep the plants’ "solar panels" from overlapping, thus depriving their neighbors of light. Thinning garden lettuce is more or less continuous because the plants grow so fast, sometimes doubling in size after a soaking spring rain.

Lettuce interplanted with broccoli

I begin eating my lettuce thinnings when the leaves get big enough to make cleaning them worthwhile, but while they are tiny I often lift and move seedlings as I thin. My method is simple: I use a spoon to scoop up a seedling with the soil still packed around its roots, slip it into a prepared spot, and water well. I’ve become particularly prone to transplanting excess lettuce seedlings to the open spaces between upright onions, where they do a good job of suppressing weeds.

Lettuce seedlings that are left to grow too close become spindly things that bolt early, probably due to extreme competition for nutrients, moisture and light. In comparison, thinning lettuce every few days so that the plants enjoy steady, exuberant growth will give you bigger plants that hold in the garden until hot weather comes along to spoil to party. Best of all, proper spacing and regular water will help your leaf lettuces develop dense, frilly hearts for early summer salads.

Growing Just Enough Lettuce

There is no way to preserve bumper crops of lettuce, so several small sowings work better than one large one. In my climate I can manage three sowings, three weeks apart in spring, and then I stop planting lettuce until nights cool down in the fall. If you’re tracking time and space closely in a square foot garden, it’s worth noting that transplanting lettuce seedlings typically sets them back about a week.

Oak leaf lettuce
Oak leaf lettuce is easy to grow and perfect for salads of all kinds

Garden lettuce is harvested four different ways – by thinning, by picking individual leaves, by cutting back the plants, or by pulling up entire plants. I occasionally pick lettuce leaves one by one to bring color or texture to a salad, but I only cut back lettuce when growing it indoors in late winter. Both of these methods hinder the plants’ progress into a glorious rosette of ruffled leaves clustered around a sweet, pale heart. In my opinion, it’s best to let plants keep most of their leaves.

In its prime, garden lettuce is sometimes said to be at the teenager stage, because botanically the plant is ready to shift from its juvenile, vegetative stage to reproductive mode (what we call bolting). The lengthening days and warm temperatures of early summer will encourage all types of lettuce to stop growing leaves and start growing flowering parts, so it’s the natural way of things for garden lettuce to be a short-lived pleasure. Fortunately, when the soil cools down in late summer and the second salad season begins, I can put leftover lettuce seeds to good use.

By Barbara Pleasant

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Show Comments


"You don't have to stop sowing lettuce in summer! I grow and eat it all summer myself. I use shade cloth along with planting in the shadier parts of my garden. To get lettuce to germinate in the hot summer, I cover the row with a board to keep it cool. There are also heat tolerant cultivars like "Jericho." With a little extra effort, you can have summer and your lettuce, too!"
April Campbell on Friday 15 April 2011
"Thank you Barbara and April. Thanks to the garden planner site I know now exactly where to plant lettuce. One garden box gets lots of filtered shade, I think most of the summer, so that's where it is. So far I only have a hardy redleaf but will plant some green leaf this weekend. I'll look for those you recommended, Barbara. I planted green leaf in a planting "kit" but they are still only an inch tall and spindly. I have them in a shady spot on the front porch. Any advice?"
Paully on Saturday 16 April 2011
"thanks for the great article, can you suggest anything what is cheap to do about rabbits? "
volker on Saturday 16 April 2011
"I have lots of rabbits in my yard from time to time. I've found the best way to control them is by erecting a low chicken wire fence around my vegetable garden. 2 foot high is plenty. I've also used the product Liguid Fence with good results. I use row covers on many veggies to thwart insects and the covers also deter rabbits and ground hogs--they very are leery of them. "
April Campbell on Saturday 16 April 2011
"Paully, step up the light if you can. With lettuce, spindly growth is usually about too little light. You can sprinkle a little dry planting mix around the base of spindly plants to help them stand up a little better. Good luck!"
Barbara Pleasant on Sunday 17 April 2011
"I also am having a problem with very spindly seedlings. Not only my lettuce, but my tomatoes and peppers as well. My tomatoes seedlings are about 2.5 - 3" long and laying all over the place. Will putting a grow light on them now (they've been up for about two weeks) do any good? They are planted in those netted peat pots (from Jiffy) that you buy in trays."
Nick Manley on Sunday 17 April 2011
"I grow my seedlings under fluorescent lights (shop lights) with T8 bulbs at 6500 kelvin. The key to lighting seedlings is distance from the light. I keep my lights no more than 2 inches from the seedlings. Seedlings can also become spindly from too much warmth. I keep a fan going in the room or open the window. I try to keep the air temperature around 70 degrees."
April Campbell on Sunday 17 April 2011
"Nick, please free your tomatoes from those balls and plant them in larger containers. Drink cups with holes punched in the bottom work well. The good thing about tomatoes is that they will grow new roots from buried stem, so transplanting deeply and getting your seedlings in strong light should help a lot. Fix up a protected spot outside where they can stay on warm days, and use a florescent light when the weather is cold or windy. Tomatoes want sun!"
Barbara Pleasant on Monday 18 April 2011
"I have so much Salad bowl and lil gem lettuce I don't know what to do with it my neighbors are sick of lettuce...This was my first time growing it and I planted so much I could eat it for a year or more to come and I pull it out roots and all to thin it...Is there anything I can do to keep it or any good soup or other cooking ideas to do with it?? Lettuce has taken my garden over lol "
Heather on Sunday 14 August 2011
"Heather, find a recipe for endive or escarole soup, and substitute chopped lettuce for the bitter greens. Most recipes are brothy white bean soups with the greens added during the last few minutes of cooking. Excellent with crusty bread! The Litte Gem heads can be trimmed and cut in half, then grilled. They are surprisingly good."
Barbara Pleasant on Monday 15 August 2011

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