Growing veg: lettuce

For most of us, making a salad begins with ‘take a lettuce’… I am old enough to remember (because as a schoolboy I worked in a greengrocer – remember those?) that the only lettuce you could buy were flabby Butterhead lettuce, each slipped into a plastic sleeve and weighing about 2 grammes. And in our geography lessons (we studied the USA) we heard about California where, apart from a land of plenty producing oranges and a wealth of edible crops that made the garden of Eden seem uninhabitable by comparison, they grew Iceberg lettuce, something virtually unknown until I ate my first Big Mac.

But home gardeners did grow a wider variety of lettuce. We grew Cos lettuce at home and ‘Webb’s Wonderful’ which, as it turned out, was as close to an Iceberg lettuce as you can get.

It is possible to grow lettuce virtually all year round but a coldframe or polytunnel are necessary to grow lettuce in winter. In theory there are several problems including fungal diseases and root aphids but these are not that common. The main issue will be rot in winter and very wet weather, sparrows attacking seedlings and slugs. Slugs will attack seedlings and, just as annoyingly, will delve deep into the heart of lettuce, making salad preparation an unpleasant experience. I am not that squeamish but I admit that I am put off my lunch if I have to forensically examine every leaf. So I do use slug pellets around my lettuce, especially at planting time, taking care to use them as though they were expensive, putting down just a few, around the plants. Never make piles of them and don’t scatter them over the plants where they will get lodged among the leaves and go mouldy.

There are many kinds of lettuce. The flabby butterheads have soft leaves and form spongy hearts, usually nicely blanched and creamy yellow colour. These are the lettuce that stick to your teeth and gums. I prefer crunchy lettuce so tend to grow crisphead lettuce which make blonde, crunchy heads or I grow Cos or Romaine lettuce. These are more upright in habit. ‘Claremont’ is one that I usually grow. Then there are oakleaf or ‘Salad Bowl’ non-heading lettuce which to not make heads. You can pick the leaves from these as you need and leave the plants to continue to grow. Similar are the ‘Lollo Rossa’ types with frilly leaves and Batavian lettuce which have frilly, rather tough leaves. I will just mention celtuce which is grown for its stems rather than the leaves and is not, despite when you may read, a cross between celery and lettuce.

Lettuce is a cool-growing crop. It does not like hot summer weather and is easier to grow in cool weather – but not cold. In fact the seeds will not germinate well if they are sown above 20c and it is sometimes suggested that the seed pack should be put in the fridge a few days before sowing. I have never done this. But you certainly don’t need high temperatures. You can sow the seeds in the garden, where they are to grow but, if growing for mature plants and not as salad leaves to be harvested as baby leaves, I prefer to sow in trays, transplanting the seedlings or in cells – as I have done this week. Sow two or three seeds per cell and thin to one seedling if they all germinate. Harden off the seedlings before planting out. Lettuce will withstand light frost so can be planted out from April onwards. Small lettuce can be planted 30cm apart with big lettuce such as ‘Webb’s Wonderful’ 40cm apart. Remember that lettuce can be eaten at every stage so you can plant 15cm apart and harvest every other one in the row when small to allow the rest to mature. This way you don’t have to wait as long for a feed and you get more from the space.

If you are new to lettuce I would suggest that a mixture is a good way to start. Most lettuce varieties will mature at the same time and it is too easy to have a dozen lettuce all ready at once. If you sow a mixture you not only get variety but they will mature over an extended period. The top photo is of a mix supplied by Real Seeds – a great company which I can’t use any more because of Brexit- GRRRR. This was a wonderful mixture with really interesting lettuce – recommended if you are in the UK – except for NI. David Cameron has a lot to answer for.

On the other hand, I would also recommend ‘Little Gem’ or one of its more recent incarnations. These are small so you can pack them into raised beds and pots and there is little waste. They also stand well, remaining in good condition for several weeks. In hot weather lettuce get tough and bitter and will run to seed. ‘Intred’ is similar but has red-flushed foliage which is attractive and, presumably, more nutritious.

You can grow lettuce very well in raised beds and pots, even window boxes, in multipurpose compost. If you want salad leaves just sow the seeds, from March to August, on the surface and you can enjoy baby leaves after about six weeks. Mature lettuce take longer to grow.

Lettuce need a neutral or alkaline soil and in acid soil the leaf tips can go brown due to calcium deficiency. A lack of water will cause similar damage.



11 Comments on “Growing veg: lettuce”

  1. Paddy Tobin
    February 25, 2021 at 7:31 am #

    Webb’s Wonderful and Saladbowl top my list of favourites.

  2. tonytomeo
    February 25, 2021 at 3:22 pm #

    The Salinas Valley with vast fields of lettuce is just about fifty miles from here. Lettuce seems to do well there naturally, as if it is native or something! It does reasonably well here too, and would likely do better if I took better care of it. I get plenty of greens from the wild or neighbor’s gardens.

    • thebikinggardener
      February 25, 2021 at 5:41 pm #

      Do the neighbours know? Or do they blame it on deer and gophers?

      • tonytomeo
        February 26, 2021 at 4:11 am #

        Ha! It took me a minute to figure that out. The neighbors bring the greens to me and leave it on the porch where they pick up the extra produce from the garden here.

        • thebikinggardener
          February 26, 2021 at 8:44 am #

          that is all very civilised and friendly šŸ™‚

          • tonytomeo
            February 26, 2021 at 3:34 pm #

            It allows me to grow what does well in my garden (which unfortunately includes carrots), while not worrying about what does not do so well. The neighbors do the same. They do not waste their time and space on pole beans, for example, because there is a lot of unsightly wire fence here that is ideal for beans.
            In the Santa Clara Valley a long time ago, most of us had an abundance of one sort of fruit. Homes were built where orchards had been, so even after almost all of the trees were removed, most back yards retained at least one of the old fruit trees, typically near the perimeter. There was no point in sharing with the close neighbors, since they also had an abundance of the same sort of fruit. However, we could share with friends elsewhere in town, who had an excess of some other sort of fruit to share with us. It was a very normal part of our culture back then. As the region became more urban, and gardens matured, we enjoyed more of a variety of fruits that were added to home gardens, but did not grow in the original orchards. Much of it was excessive. As kids most of us were expected to collect fruit from trees in our parents’ gardens, as well as the gardens of homes where there were no children at the time, and leave big bags of fruit on the porches around the neighborhood, . . . and leave before someone came to the door to tell us that they had no use for so much of the fruit. Because of seismic activity, modern homes lacked cellars. However, they had big garages that accommodated the cars of the 1950s. The backsides of several garages were filled with canned fruit that really belonged in a cellar.

            • thebikinggardener
              February 26, 2021 at 4:18 pm #

              Sharing crops is a good idea – it sounds idyllic although I am sure that picking loads of fruit was not an easy job.

              • tonytomeo
                February 27, 2021 at 8:33 am #

                It was not difficult. The trees did what they could to help. It would not be a good idea now. Someone would call the police if I left a bag of fruit on their porch, and I would go to jail. When I lived in town, a ‘neighbor’ complained that my peach and fig trees attracted vermin, and demanded that I cut both down. I got a similar complaint about an apple tree at a home I lived in a long time ago, while in high school. When I did not cut the tree down, it ‘mysteriously’ died suddenly, along with everything around it.

              • thebikinggardener
                February 27, 2021 at 8:38 am #

                Oh dear, that is a sad state of affairs!

              • tonytomeo
                February 27, 2021 at 6:35 pm #

                Yes; it is one of the many reasons that those of us who are native dislike ‘progress’. The Santa Clara Valley used to be so idyllic.

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