Homegrown lettuce may be one of the most delicious garden vegetables. When grown well, it is sweet, crisp and delicate. However, many gardeners avoid growing lettuce because they struggle with lettuce that goes to seed too early and has a bitter taste. Garden lettuce need not have these negative characteristics, when grown properly. Lettuce grows best in cool weather, with lots of water.
You need to take a few steps to prepare for a good bed of garden lettuce. First off, you must prepare your soil. The regular soil in a typical yard will not produce good lettuce. You will have best results by custom-mixing soil for your lettuce bed. A good mix might include 1/3 regular soil from your yard, 1/3 composted manure, and 1/3 part peat moss OR compost. You may also add a slow-release fertilizer such as Osmocote©. This custom soil will provide your lettuce plants what they need for good, quick growth. You may leave this soil on the ground or put it into raised beds, which are wooden boxes or frames used for gardening.
The next step is to plan your watering system. Many gardeners fail at growing lettuce because they do not provide adequate water. Sweet, crisp lettuce requires an almost-constant source of water. The easiest way to provide water is drip-system irrigation. A drip system for lettuce need not be expensive. You can likely set it all up for under $20. Garden drip irrigation kits are universally available. If you do not use drip irrigation, plan to water your lettuce twice a day in hot, dry climates, perhaps less so in more moist climates. Your goal is to keep the soil moist at all times.
Once your site and watering system are in place, you will want to plan to start your lettuce seedlings well in advance. Most lettuce packets contain the advice, “Plant as early as soil can be worked.” This will be weeks ahead of your last frost date! If your last frost date is the first week in May, lettuce seedlings can often be set out at the end of March or the first week in April. You can start the seeds in the ground, but this often delays growth too much. It is better to start seedlings ahead of time, starting about 3-4 weeks before you plan to put the seedlings in the ground. As an example, if you want to put your plants out the first week in April, you may start your seedlings the first week in March.
It is easiest to start lettuce in a greenhouse, because of the great light that nourishes the plants, but if you don’t have one, start your seedlings indoors. For strongest plants, take your seedlings outdoors during the day to grow in a sheltered area with full light. Be sure that the plants never dry out. An easy way to do this is to place your plant pots in a tray that always has some water in it. Bring in your seedlings at night. Although lettuce can freeze hard and still grow, freezing will delay the quick growth you desire for good lettuce.
A week before you set out your plants, you will need to prepare them for their new life outside. You do this in a process called “hardening off.” This simply means that you set the plants outside in a place that gets part sun during the day. Maintain your constant watering! Don’t bring the plants in at night. Hardening off acclimates your baby plants to their life outside. After a week of hardening off, you may plant your lettuce starts in your prepared soil. Place them about 10 inches apart and water them in well. Make sure from here on out that they are moist at all times.
You can eat your lettuce anytime the leaves begin to form. “Baby lettuce” refers to lettuce that is harvested early, before the plants fully mature. You can harvest your baby lettuce by gently pulling or cutting individual leaves from each plant, working from the outside in. Only take a third of the leaves at any time, in order to avoid killing the plant. However, you don’t have to use the most outer leaves, as they may be tough. When your lettuce gets more mature, it will be full and lush with leaves. You can use a serrated kitchen knife to cut straight across the lettuce. With plenty of water, you may enjoy a second “cut-and-come-again” crop of lettuce. Be sure you wash the leaves extremely well to get rid of dirt and any insects that might have crept into the lettuce.
The most delectable way to serve your homegrown lettuce is the easiest. Wash your leaves well and dry them either with a paper towel or in a salad spinner. Place in a plastic bag and put in the fridge to chill and crisp. A half hour before serving, tear your lettuce into small pieces and place in salad bowl with any additions you may like, including chives or green onions from your garden, since they may also be grown as soon as the soil can be worked. Toss well and dress with oil and vinegar or your favorite dressing.