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Growing Lettuce From Seed to Harvest: A Detailed Guide

Growing Lettuce

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Growing lettuce at home is extremely popular since it’s easy to grow, it requires little space and can mature in a matter of weeks. It’s also an exceptionally versatile vegetable, and homegrown lettuce invariably tastes better than the bagged, store-bought products.

Homegrown lettuces are inherently fresher and healthier than store bought lettuces picked days or even weeks earlier in another part of the country. And, there’s the added benefit that growing your own lettuce is significantly cheaper than buying from your local supermarket.

You can obtain lettuce seed throughout the year, or you can buy young seedlings in seed packs from a garden center from spring to early summer. Baby greens are ready to pick within a month of seeding, and full heads can be ready in under two months with the right conditions and care.

Let’s take a look at everything you need to know before planting.

Green leaf lettuce

Basic Needs for Growing Lettuce

Location

Most lettuces are cool weather crops that are best grown in spring and fall, away from very hot or very cold conditions and other inclement weather. The ideal germination and growing temperatures are between 60 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit.

As well as the correct temperature, your lettuces need plenty of light. Ideally, they should be planted in an area that gets at least six hours of direct sunlight a day.

If you plan on growing your lettuce indoors, a sunny windowsill may be fine for small lettuce varieties or microgreens. If a sunny spot isn’t available, however, you can still grow lettuce indoors with the help of grow lights or an indoor garden kit with grow lights attached.

Containers or in the Ground?

Lettuce can be grown in containers either indoors or outdoors, or in the ground outside. Its shallow roots make it ideal for pots, baskets, or window boxes, but it will also thrive in the ground with more space. A nice bonus is that you can sow the seeds directly into the soil without the need to germinate in smaller pots.

If you choose to sow seeds into your garden directly, they should be planted in rows, each seed 2 inches apart, and each row at least 12 inches apart. The seeds require light to germinate, so they should be covered with just a light layer of soil.

Lettuce germinates quickly in warm conditions, but it can take a couple of weeks in cold or cool weather. Once the seedlings are established and thriving though, you should thin them to 10 inches apart. Seedlings in containers should also be thinned out and planted in separate pots to allow for fuller growth.

Watering

For the first two weeks after planting your lettuce should be well watered, daily if it’s very hot and dry, every other day if not. After two weeks, as it moves into its main growing period, reduce watering to twice a week until harvest. Without consistent watering, the leaves can become bitter, and your lettuce may bolt and start to produce flowers instead of leaves.

When growing lettuce in containers, water frequently enough to ensure the plants are kept moist, but don’t let the roots get waterlogged. A clay pot with plenty of drainage holes would be ideal. Growing lettuce in containers also means that they will need slightly more frequent watering than if planted in the ground.

Red leaf lettuce

Soil

Lettuce grows best in loose, cool soil with adequate drainage to keep the roots from getting saturated. It does not do well in acid soil, preferring organic soil with a pH of around 6.75.

Fertilizer

When sowing seeds in the ground, prepare your soil with an organic, slow-release fertilizer about two weeks before sowing. Keep an eye on it and if the lettuce is growing well, you may not need to fertilize again.

If your seeds have been transplanted into the ground, use an alfalfa meal or a slow-release fertilizer three weeks after transplantation.

For lettuces in containers, nutrients can leach out with each watering, so they will need regular fertilizing to encourage them to keep producing new leaves as you harvest them.

Pests

Lettuce attracts a number of pests. You’ll need to watch out for slugs and snails, and greenfly may be a problem in summer. Also be on the lookout for cabbage worms and aphids.

Fortunately, there’s a variety of natural pesticides you can use which will keep your plants chemical free while keeping them healthy.

Aftercare

Lettuce requires little care, other than thinning.

However, if the weather is hot, you should add extra watering and cover to create shade. Growing in the shade of taller vegetables will help with this.

If the weather is below freezing, cover your lettuces with light materials like sheets to protect from a short frost. Longer periods of frost may be damaging to the lettuce, or at a minimum it will slow their growth. Butterhead and romaine lettuces are the most cold tolerant.

Harvesting

Lettuce is a plant that keeps on giving if you harvest and care for it properly. Harvest early in the day, before the lettuce has been exposed to direct sunlight, for the crispest, best-tasting leaves.

This short video explains two different ways to use the “cut and come again” method so that you never run out of your homegrown lettuce.

As your lettuce grows, you can harvest loose leaves as you need them, instead of waiting for the full head to be ready. Pinch each leaf one inch from the ground and the leaf will grow back.

Alternatively, you can use scissors to clip off the tops of the plant and the leaves will regrow.

For a full, mature head of lettuce, harvest by slicing it off about an inch above the soil. The remaining stump will re-sprout to give a second crop.

Storing Lettuce

Thoroughly wash your lettuce leaves as soon as you’ve harvested them and dry them completely. Wrap the leaves in dry paper towels, place in a plastic bag or storage container and place in the refrigerator. Stored this way, they’ll stay fresh for several days.

What Lettuce to Grow?

There’s a wide variety of lettuces available to home food growers. Some of the more popular options include:

  • Loose-leaf lettuce such as Oak Leaf is very easy to grow, and full heads of loose leaves are ready in around six weeks. They are available with both green and red leaves.
  • Summer Crisp lettuce starts out fairly similar to loose-leaf. Then as it develops the heads become rounder. Summer crisp is hardy, heat tolerant, and suitable for summer growing.
  • Iceberg, also known as the crisphead, is a crunchy lettuce that’s a popular choice in grocery stores. It often requires more care than loose-leaf but can still be grown at home.
  • Romaine can be left to grow into a full-headed lettuce or individual leaves can be picked when mature. Romaine varieties can withstand short freezes better that other varieties. The crisp, slender leaves are a must if you’re a Caesar salad fan.
  • Butterhead lettuce grows into heads of loose, crisp leaves. They are very hardy and weather tolerant and can be harvested in both warm and cold conditions.

Final Thoughts

Different varieties of lettuce require specific care, so it’s often best to start with something simple, such as loose-leaf, and then experiment with growing different kinds from there. Some other varieties of lettuce you may want to consider growing are Belgian endive, arugula (rocket), radicchio, and frisée (curly endive).  Regardless of the variety you grow, once you taste the crispness and freshness of your own homegrown lettuces, I’m pretty sure you’ll be glad you started growing your own.

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How to grow lettuce

 

Amy Martens

Amy Martens

My interest in growing my own food stems from many sources: enjoyment of gardening, concern about chemicals and pesticides, and the desire to eat fresher, healthier fruits and vegetables. I believe the more we do this, the healthier we’ll all be, while helping our planet at the same time.

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