How to plant lettuce in a garden

How to plant lettuce: A guide to planting, growing & harvesting lettuce

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Are you ready to learn how to plant lettuce? This popular salad green is one of the easiest crops to grow in garden beds and containers and is ideal for spring and autumn harvesting. Plus, it’s a speedy crop with baby greens ready to pick around a month from seeding and full heads in two months or less.

In our family, we eat a lot of salads and if you’re buying lettuce at the supermarket, the cost quickly adds up. Growing your own lettuce is an easy way to save on grocery bills and enjoy months of homegrown organic greens. 

Spring salad greens

Lettuce is a cool season vegetable that thrives in the spring or fall garden.

Types of lettuce

There are many types of lettuce you can plant. I’m a big fan of leaf lettuce because it grows so quickly and you can harvest from each plant for weeks, but there are a lot of varieties available in seed catalogs and on seed racks:

  • Looseleaf – Looseleaf lettuce is among the easiest to grow. It’s also super speedy, forming large loose heads in just five to six weeks.
  • Oakleaf – I grow oakleaf lettuces as a leaf lettuce, harvesting often from the plants as they grow. If left to mature, they will eventually form full-sized heads. The leaves are lobed like oak leaves, and can be green or red, depending on the variety. 
  • Romaine – An essential ingredient in Caesar salad, romaine lettuce plants form tight, upright heads of crisp leaves.
  • ButterheadButterhead lettuce, also known as Boston or Bibb, forms lovely loose heads of tender crisp leaves. There are heat tolerant varieties of butterhead that can be grown in summer, as well as cold tolerant varieties for winter harvesting. 
  • Iceberg – Iceberg, or crisphead lettuce has a reputation for being hard to grow but I’ve had no problem growing it in my raised beds.
  • Summer crisp – Initially summer crisp, or Batavia type lettuces look a lot like looseleaf varieties. But as they mature, they form beautiful rounded heads. There are many heat-tolerant varieties well suited to summer growing. 
There are many varieties of lettuce to plant

There are many different types of lettuce to grow. I love looseleaf, romaine and butterhead varieties and enjoy all the various leaf colors and textures.

Growing a lettuce garden 

Lettuce is a cool weather crop and is best grown in spring and fall. The seeds germinate in temperatures as low as 40 F (4 C) but its ideal germination and growing temperature is between 60 and 65 F (16 to 18 C). 

To grow great lettuce, find a site that offers at least six to eight hours of direct sun. It is possible to grow lettuce in partial shade (three to four hours of sun), but in low light I would suggest planting looseleaf varieties which grow faster than heading types. Once you’ve picked your spot, prepare the bed for planting by digging in an inch or two of compost or aged manure. If you like, you can also dig in a slow release organic fertilizer at this time. 

Lettuce also makes a fantastic container plant. It produces a shallow root system and can be grown in this cool Vegtrug 8 pocket herb garden, window-boxes, pots, fabric planters, baskets, or any container that is at least four to six inches deep and has drainage holes. 

To get a jump start on the lettuce harvest, I cover my early spring garden beds with fabric or plastic covered mini tunnels. These capture solar energy and protect from cool temperatures and frost.

Most salad greens can be planted in containers

Lettuce is shallow rooted and can be grown in containers just four to six inches deep.

How to plant lettuce seeds 

There are two ways to plant lettuce seeds: 

  1. Direct sow seeds in the garden or containers.
  2. Transplant lettuce seedlings that were started indoors under grow lights or purchased from a garden centre.

Direct sowing lettuce seeds

When direct seeding heading types of lettuce in rows, space the seeds two inches apart with rows twelve to eighteen inches apart, depending on the variety. Don’t sow the seeds too deeply as they need light to germinate. Cover them with a thin layer of soil. Once the seedlings are growing well, thin to ten to twelve inches.

For a crop of baby lettuce, I like to sow the seeds in bands. You can make narrow bands that are just three to four inches across or wider bands to fit your space. I often sow twelve to eighteen inch wide bands of baby lettuces in my raised beds, trying to space the seeds about two inches apart. You can grow a single variety this way or buy a packet of gourmet mixed lettuces

Lettuce ready to be transplanted in a garden

Lettuce can be direct seeded or transplanted into a garden.

Transplanting lettuce

When transplanting lettuce into my garden beds or containers, I typically plant in a grid pattern, spacing each seedling about ten inches apart. This is where you can have a bit of fun if you’re growing multicolored varieties like Salanova Home & Garden Mix. You can stagger the colors to create a checkerboard pattern. 

If transplanting in rows, space seedlings ten to twelve inches apart and rows twelve to eighteen inches apart, depending on the mature size of the variety. Check your seed packet for specific spacing instructions. 

How to plant romaine lettuce

Romaine lettuce is one of the most popular types of lettuce and is very easy to grow. You can grow it as a baby crop and harvest the young leaves for weeks or you can allow the plants to mature to full-sized heads. For the best-tasting romaine lettuce give the plants consistent moisture, plenty of sunlight and cool temperatures. 

Because my garden is a slug haven, I find it helpful to start seeds for romaine lettuce indoors and move the seedlings out to my raised beds a week or two before the last expected spring frost. For full sized heads of romaine lettuce, space them ten inches apart. 

garden lettuce

I often use wire mini hoops covered in fabric or plastic to protect my lettuce from frost, bad weather or pests.

Succession planting lettuce

Wondering how to plant lettuce so that you can have a very long season of harvest? The secret is succession planting! Succession planting is simply planting seeds at different times. I like to plant small amounts of lettuce seed at any one time so that we have enough for our family, but not so much that I can’t keep up with the harvest. 

The successive crops come from the additional lettuce seeds I sow every two to three weeks from mid-spring to early summer. Seeding lettuce over the course of spring or autumn results in a non-stop crop of high quality greens.   

How far apart to plant lettuce 

Once your lettuce seedlings are growing well, you can thin them to allow enough room that they mature into good-sized heads. You’ll find specific variety spacing listed on the seed packet, but generally a spacing of ten to twelve inches is best.

For heads of baby lettuce, you can space the plants a bit closer, at six to eight inches. This technique works well for romaine lettuce which then forms compact heads just six to eight inches tall. 

Seedlings ready to plant in the garden

When transplanting lettuce seedlings into my garden beds, I like to space them ten inches apart for full-sized heads. If I’m growing a band of baby greens, I’ll sow the seeds just a few inches apart.

How to grow a lettuce plant 

Now that you know how to plant lettuce, it’s time to learn a few key growing techniques. The key to a high quality crop of tender, mild-tasting lettuce is consistent moisture. If lettuce plants are heat or drought stressed, the leaves turn bitter and the plants will bolt. Bolting is when the plants switch from leaf production to flower production and a flower stalk emerges. Read more about bolting here. 

I live in a northern climate where spring often takes a few steps backwards and temperatures dip below freezing. Keep row covers handy to protect from frost or unexpected cold temperatures. They can be placed directly over the lettuce plants or floated above on hoops. You can also buy handy fleece tunnels online or at garden centres.

If your spring weather turns from warm to hot quicker than expected, keep lengths of shade cloth handy so that you can create a shady spot. It’s easy to make hoops from half inch PVC conduit, metal wire, or other materials. Lay a piece of 40% shadecloth on top of the hoops, securing it with clips. Shadecloth reduces the heat and light around your lettuce plants and can delay bolting by a week or two. 

If you’ve worked organic matter and a slow-release organic fertilizer into the soil before planting, there’s no need to further fertilize your fast-growing lettuce plants. 

Use shade cloth to protect spring salad greens

When the spring weather turns warm, I often erect a shade cloth tunnel overtop my lettuce bed. This cools and shades the plants, delaying bolting.

Lettuce pests

In my garden, the biggest threats to my lettuce plants are deer and slugs. To deal with deer, check out this excellent article by Jessica. She also wrote this detailed article on slugs. I find diatomaceous earth effective on slugs. Reapply after rain. You can also use chicken wire or willow cloches to keep animals like deer or rabbits away from lettuce. Or, erect a mini hoop tunnel over your bed and cover with bird netting, chicken wire, or an insect barrier fabric. 

Aphids are another common lettuce pest. Aphids are tiny, soft bodied insects that suck the juices from the leaves, causing curling or distortion. Because lettuce grows so quickly, a modest infestation isn’t usually a big problem. I just give the leaves a quick wash before we make a salad. If there are a lot of aphids on your lettuce plants, you can spray with an organic soapy water spray to kill the insects and their eggs. This may require a few applications. 

How to harvest lettuce plants

Once you’ve got a nice crop of lettuce coming along in your garden, how do you know when it’s time to harvest? There are several ways to enjoy your lettuce:

  1. Harvest as a baby green by picking individual young leaves or harvesting the entire immature plant.
  2. Selectively harvest outer leaves from looseleaf or heading varieties as the plants grow.
  3. Harvest the entire head by slicing it off about an inch above the soil.
When and how to harvest lettuce

When harvesting a whole head of lettuce, slice it off just above the soil level.

For more information on growing greens, be sure to check out these awesome articles:

Do you have any more questions about how to plant lettuce? 

How going to plant, grow and harvest lettuce

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One Response to How to plant lettuce: A guide to planting, growing & harvesting lettuce

  1. Helen Malandrakis says:

    I like to mix seeds of my leaf lettuce and arugula ad plant. That way I can harvest of little of each at one time for my salad.

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