How to Grow Lettuce: Beginner’s Starter Guide

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Starting a garden this year but don’t know where to begin? Growing lettuce for your own homegrown salad is a great place to start!

When Should You Grow Lettuce?

Lettuce is a cool weather crop, grown in both spring and fall. It can tolerate frosts (which can happen under 40 degrees F) and young plants can take a freeze (anything at or slightly below 32 degrees).

The tricky thing about growing lettuce is that because it likes cool weather, it does not like the heat. Lettuce will often begin to bolt, which makes the leaves bitter and inedible, when temperatures are consistently above 80 degrees F. Learn more about bolting here.

In the spring, you can plant lettuce as early as four weeks before your average last frost date. You can choose to plant transplants, directly sow the seeds in the ground, or start seeds indoors. If you start indoors, begin about four weeks before you plan to plant outside.

When planning the timing of planting lettuce outside — whether you plant transplants or direct sow — aim to time your planting so the lettuce matures before your weather consistently reaches 80-85 degrees. Check the “days to maturity” on the seed packet, add a couple of weeks to harvest, and count backward. That date would be the last date you’d want to plant lettuce in the spring to get a harvest before the heat causes the plants to become bitter.

How far apart should you plant lettuce?

If you are growing lettuce for leaf lettuce (as opposed to head lettuce), you need about 4-6 inches of space between each plant. You can plant closer if you plan to harvest them as baby greens. Head lettuce needs about 10 inches between each plant.

TIP: Direct sow the lettuce seeds and then snip the baby lettuce at soil level. Aim for a final plant spacing of the plants you leave behind to be about 4-6″ apart; then let those develop fully before harvesting.

Here I am growing my lettuce in my GreenStalk Vertical Leaf Planter

Sunlight and Water Requirements

Lettuce needs at least 4 hours of direct sunlight but the more hours you can give them particularly in the early spring, the better they will grow.

Lettuce can benefit from shade though in the heat. To extend your spring planting a little longer, consider a shade cloth. Sometimes growing it under the shade of another tall plant can help the lettuce to grow for longer.

As far as watering goes, in the spring be cautious to not overwater. Cooler temps in the spring coupled with relative smaller lettuce plants, they don’t need as much water. It can be easy to water too much and kill the plants. Once the heat of the summer begins and the plants grow taller, you can start to water more frequently.

Tip: Use the “knuckle test” to determine if the plant needs water. When you place your finger into the soil to the second knuckle, if the soil is wet, it doesn’t need water; if it’s dry, it does.

How to Plant

Lettuce can be grown in 3 different ways:

  • Direct seeded into the garden when the soil temps are between 40-75
  • Seed started indoors 4-6 weeks before you plan to plant them outside
  • Purchased as transplants at the garden center

PLANTING TIP: My preferred method of planting is to rough up the soil and water it, sprinkle the seeds on top, rough it up again and smooth it out, making sure to keep the seeds at the surface since lettuce seeds need light to germinate. Keep them moist with a spray bottle or mister for light watering and to not disrupt the seeds.

Growing Tips

  • Succession sow for a longer harvest (plant seeds every two weeks)
  • Add mulch when plants are established to help with water retention
  • Plant them under a vertical crop to provide shade in the heat of the summer
  • Amend raised beds and ground beds with compost
  • If growing in containers, a supplemental dose of liquid nitrogen is helpful but not required. I like to grow mine in my GreenStalk Vertical Leaf Planter. (Use my affiliate code JILL10 for 10% off your order)
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How to Harvest

You can harvest as baby lettuce or as head lettuce as mentioned above. If harvesting head lettuce, you can pluck from the outside in OR you can use the “one-cut” method where you cut the head and let it regrow.

Tips on Types to Grow

Unless your season is long and cool, I would stay away from trying to grow head lettuce your first year. If you like a challenge, you can always try it. Also, grow what you like to eat.

TIP: If its iceberg that you like to eat, find a variety of a leaf lettuce that says the word “crunchy”.

If you want to learn more about the differences between types of lettuces, check out episode #294 – Year-Round Salad Greens of The Beginners Garden Podcast. Find it wherever you find your podcasts.

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