Growing lettuce in winter is easier than you think! The key is to select frost-tolerant varieties and pair them with a season extender like a cold frame, mini hoop tunnel, or polytunnel. I love having a steady supply of tender, organic lettuce leaves from December through March from plants that grew just a few steps from my back door. Below you’ll find detailed information on timing, planting, and protecting winter lettuce as well as my all-time favorite cold hardy varieties.
Why grow lettuce in winter
There are a lot of reasons for growing lettuce in winter but my main motives are; 1) it’s easy and 2) it allows me to harvest dozens of heads of organically grown lettuce from December through March. I love my winter vegetable garden! In spring, summer, and autumn I have to deal with temperature extremes, dry or wet weather, and pests like deer, groundhogs, rabbits, aphids, slugs, and more. Winter is a quiet season where the only garden work is harvesting.
It’s important to point out that I’m not really ‘growing’ lettuce in winter. The growth of most plants slows dramatically when the day length shrinks to less ten hours of light each day. In my northern region that happens in early November. Therefore I aim to plant and grow my lettuce in early to mid-autumn and the plants then spend the winter protected in a season extending device like a cold frame. In my award-winning book, The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener I detail how to select, grow, and protect a wide variety of vegetables, including lettuce, for winter harvesting. In my latest book, Growing Under Cover, I build on these concepts and include larger structures like greenhouses and polytunnels for boosting yield in a home vegetable garden.
Two ways for growing lettuce in winter
There are two methods I use for growing lettuce in winter. The first one results in a non-stop supply of lettuce from early to mid-winter. This crop is planted in late summer or early autumn and the lettuce is cut December through March. The other method is an overwintering technique with lettuce planted in mid-autumn. These plants start to put on growth before the deep freeze of winter arrives. At that point, they grow very slowly until the day length extends beyond ten hours once again in late winter. With the increased light the plants size up quickly for harvesting in March and April.
Lettuce seeds are either direct sown or started indoors and transplanted as seedlings. I often transplant the lettuce I grow for winter harvesting. This is because it’s planted in late summer to early autumn when the weather is hot and dry. If the soil temperatures are too high lettuce seeds can enter thermal dormancy and won’t germinate. Starting the seeds indoors under my grow lights is an easy way to get around hot and dry weather. If you do want to direct seed, encourage good germination by keeping the seedbed lightly moist until the seeds sprout.
When to plant lettuce for winter harvesting
I’m often asked when I plant the vegetables I winter harvest from my garden. And while it may seem tricky to figure out timing, it’s actually very easy, especially for lettuce. First, decide if you want full-sized heads or baby lettuce for winter harvesting (or both!). Next, find out your first average fall frost date. For me it’s around October first. Once you have those two pieces of information it’s easy to determine the right timing for direct seeding and transplanting lettuce.
Growing full-sized heads of lettuce for winter
Below you’ll find information on when to direct seed or transplant lettuce to produce mature heads for winter harvesting.
Full-sized lettuce heads, direct seeded:
- Planting in garden beds (to be covered with a mini hoop tunnel or portable cold frame in mid to late autumn) – Sow seeds 10 to 11 weeks before the first average fall frost date.
- Planting directly in a cold frame, greenhouse, or polytunnel – Sow seeds 6 to 7 weeks before the first average fall frost date.
Full-sized lettuce heads, transplanted:
You may luck out and find lettuce seedlings at your local nursery in late summer. If not, you’ll need to grow them yourself. I sow lettuce seeds indoors 3 to 4 weeks before I intend to transplant them into my garden structures.
- Planting in garden beds (to be covered with a mini hoop tunnel or portable cold frame in mid to late autumn) – 6 to 7 weeks before the first average fall frost date.
- Planting directly in a permanent cold frame, greenhouse, or polytunnel – 6 to 7 weeks before the first average fall frost date.
Growing baby lettuce greens for winter
As much as I love cutting a whole head of lettuce, it’s also nice to have an assortment of baby lettuce greens. This makes it easy to mix and match leaves with various colors and textures for gourmet salads. In spring baby leaf lettuce goes from seed to harvest in just 4 weeks. The diminishing day length and cool temperatures of autumn slow down the growth of the plants. Therefore expect autumn planted baby lettuce to need 5 to 6 weeks to go from seed to harvest.
Baby lettuce greens are very quick to grow and not generally transplanted. They’re also seeded densely. For baby greens I aim to plant one seed per square inch of bed space. Keep the soil consistently moist until the seeds germinate and the plants are growing well.
For baby lettuce greens, direct seeded:
- Planting in garden beds (to be covered with a mini hoop tunnel or portable cold frame in mid to late autumn) – Direct seed 5 to 6 weeks before the first expected fall frost.
- Planting directly in a permanent cold frame, greenhouse, or polytunnel – Direct seed 4 to 5 weeks before the first expected fall frost date.
How to protect lettuce in winter
Unless you live in a mild climate you’ll need to use season extenders to protect winter lettuce. Below you’ll find details on three of my favorite structures for winter harvesting.
- Cold frame – A cold frame is a bottomless box with a clear top that captures solar energy and creates a microclimate around your plants. You can DIY a cold frame from untreated lumber and an old window, or you can buy a frame made from polycarbonate. Some cold frames are lightweight and can be moved around the garden as needed.
- Mini hoop tunnel – A mini hoop tunnel is easy to DIY in a garden and has two main components: hoops and a cover. Hoops used for winter harvesting should be made from a sturdy material like 1/2” PVC conduit or 1/2” metal conduit (you need a metal bender to make metal hoops). The hoops are covered with row cover or polyethylene sheeting. For lettuce, I start with a length of lightweight row cover and as the weather cools I add a sheet of polyethylene overtop the row cover. This double layer provides excellent protection for winter-hardy lettuce varieties. I use snap clamps to securely hold the covers on my 1/2″ PVC or metal conduit tunnels. If you don’t want to DIY a mini hoop tunnel, there are also various tunnel kits you can buy online.
- Polytunnel or greenhouse – If you have a walk-in structure like a polytunnel use it to produce lettuce all winter long. I have a 14 by 24 foot polytunnel and grow about 60 heads of lettuce each winter. Lettuce is less cold hardy than greens like spinach, and for this reason I add a second cover inside my tunnel in late December. I float a lightweight row cover over 9 gauge wire hoops for an extra layer of protection.
The best lettuces to grow in winter
Flip though any seed catalog and you’ll discover many types of lettuce including romaine, butterhead, bibb, iceberg, lollo, and looseleaf. To find the best choices for growing lettuce in winter read the variety descriptions carefully. Often the name gives it away, as in the case of Winter Density. Another advantage of selecting lettuces classified as ‘winter lettuces’ is that they tend to grow better in lower light. Below are some of my go to lettuces for winter harvesting.
Romaine lettuces for winter
Winter Density – I’ve been growing this variety for years and love the tidy heads of thick, crunchy deep green leaves. Winter Density is a cross between romaine and buttercrunch lettuce and has been very reliable in my winter cold frames and polytunnel.
Rouge d’Hiver – The name of this heirloom romaine translates into ‘winter red’ lettuce and it certainly lives up to its name. Rouge d’Hiver was one of the first lettuces I grew in my winter garden and it continues to be a family favorite. The loose, upright heads have bright green leaves and red tinted edges.
Winter Wonderland – Cold climate gardeners will appreciate the robust hardiness of Winter Wonderland. The plants form large, full-sized heads of deep green leaves that can grow 18″ tall and 12″ across.
Butterhead lettuces for winter
North Pole – North Pole is a cold tolerant butterhead variety perfect for spring, autumn, and winter harvesting. It produces compact heads with bright green leaves that are crunchy and sweet.
Brune d’Hiver – This is a French heirloom with glowing green heads brushed in reddish-bronze. It has excellent cold hardiness and is both beautiful and delicious.
Winter Marvel – Winter Marvel is a standard in my garden for its crisp texture, good flavor, and resilience. This heirloom is also listed in seed catalogs as Merville de Quatre Saison. It forms tidy heads with layers of wavy, deep green leaves.
Arctic King – As the name implies, Arctic King is another cold season superstar. It thrives in cool to cold temperatures and is ideal for growing in winter or to overwinter as an extra-early crop. Each head forms a dense rosette of light green leaves.
Lollo lettuces for winter
Dark Red Lollo Rossa – Lollo lettuces are perhaps the prettiest lettuces and have densely frilled heads made up of lime green or bright red leaves. They’re also cold tolerant and perfect for winter structures like a cold frame or greenhouse. Dark Red Lollo Rossa forms a tight head of heavily ruffled leaves with burgundy leaf edges and green hearts.
Looseleaf lettuces for winter
Merlot – Add bold color to winter salads with Merlot, a looseleaf lettuce with glossy, dark burgundy leaves. Like most looseleaf types, Merlot forms a loose rosette of red ruffled leaves, not a tight head. Excellent flavor.
Red Tinged Winter – This is another stunning variety for gardeners who wish to harvest lettuce in winter. It forms an eye-catching whirl of green leaves edged in bugundy-bronze. I love to grow it for cold season salads, but it’s also an excellent lettuce for spring and autumn harvesting.
Salanova lettuces for winter
Over the past three years I’ve been growing a selection of Salanova lettuces in my spring, summer, autumn, and winter garden. Salanova varieties offer a big yield, packing three times the leaves into a single head over traditional lettuce varieties. They’re also cold and heat tolerant and have an excellent flavor and texture. There are many varieties of Salanova available to grow but my favorites for winter harvesting include Green Butter, Red Butter, Red Oakleaf, and Green Sweet Crisp.
Check out these detailed articles for more information on growing lettuce and cold season harvesting:
- Growing romaine lettuce: from seed to harvest
- How to plant lettuce in gardens and containers
- A winter greenhouse for year-round production
- Vegetables to harvest in winter
- Learn how to garden with a cold frame
Are you growing lettuce in winter?