Edible Gardening

Growing Lettuce

It’s time – it’s not too late to buy lettuce seed or transplants from a local garden center or to order seed from your favorite catalog.

If you love delicious salads, growing your own fresh lettuce will forever change you. The tenderness and flavors are far superior to anything you can buy in the store. Here in the Piedmont, most of our lettuces grow best in the spring and fall when temperatures are in the 40-60 degree range, so don’t delay.

Buying lettuce seeds from catalogs like Johnny’s Selected Seeds (johnnyseeds.com) or The Cook’s Garden (cooksgarden.com) that cater to market growers can be a little overwhelming because there are so many mouthwatering options. These varieties are selected for their flavor, color or texture more than their ability to hold up for long periods of transport and store display. If you are having a hard time choosing or just want to grow a small amount, you may want to try a lettuce “mix.” You can sample what you like and grow more of that in the fall.

There are several basic types of lettuces from which to choose: looseleaf, romaine, butterhead, summer crisp, lollo, oakleaf and iceberg (head lettuce). The pale firm-headed lettuce you see in most groceries is iceberg and it generally does not grow well in our heat. Fortunately, the more leafy lettuces are far tastier. And unlike iceberg, you can harvest the outer leaves of leaf lettuces and the plants keep growing.

The red oakleafs are one of my favorites—very sturdy and productive and add gorgeous color to the bowl when mixed with a lime green variety like Black Seeded Simpson. Romaines have a firm texture that make a dynamite Caesar salad. If you need to fluff up your salad bowl, add some frilly pink lollo leaves. Butterhead lettuces are valued for their sweet and tender leaves—hence “buttery.”

It’s important to choose varieties that are described as “heat tolerant” or “slow bolting” because our weather is notorious for swings in temperature.  Several hot days can cause the plants to quit growing and instead turn their energy into seed production. This makes the plant elongate and the leaves become bitter.

If I have baby plants or lush lettuces at their peak and I know steamy temperatures are coming in, I will give them shade relief with lightweight row cover material or even bed sheets draped over a support structure like bamboo poles. I’ll also make sure I water them late at night or very early morning to keep them hydrated. At the other extreme, on below freezing nights throwing the row covers directly over the plants can prevent damage to the tender leaves.

I grow lettuces in our vegetable garden, which has been well amended with compost. I also seed them in big tubs or even baby pools that have drainage holes and are filled with good quality potting soil. Don’t use garden soil in pots—it won’t drain well and plants will not flourish. You can get two or three seasons out of the potting soil so it’s worth the extra cost.

Fish and seaweed fertilizers do wonders for lettuce, but don’t over apply or growth can be excessive, soft and prone to disease and insect attacks.  Avoid applying to the leaves close to harvest time or you will have a fishy salad. Don’t forget that soil tests are free at the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Agronomic Division.

Put some seeds or plants in today and impress your friends with the most delicious salad ever.

Jeana Myers, PhD, is the Horticulture Agent for Wake County. For gardening questions, contact the Extension Master Gardeners of Wake County at 919-250-1084 or email mgardener@wakegov.com.

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