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How to Plant and Grow Leaf Lettuce

Lactuca sativa

For the antsy gardener waiting for the last spring frost, growing leaf lettuce eases the tension. Its fresh, vibrant leaves are quick to rise, a welcome sight in the early weeks of spring.

“Leaf lettuce” refers to varieties that don’t produce any type of head.

They are easier to grow than other types of lettuce, and produce multiple harvests throughout the season.

And of course, is there anything more satisfying than assembling a freshly harvested salad?

A horizontal close up of green leaf lettuce with water droplets on the leaves.A horizontal close up of green leaf lettuce with water droplets on the leaves.

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Freshly harvested homegrown lettuce may also be more nutritious and flavorful than anything you will find at the grocery store.

Individual plants require very little space with minimal maintenance, and you can harvest leaves as soon as they reach a usable size.

And if you experiment with different varieties, you might discover new flavors that you never knew existed.

Our guide has all the know-how you need for growing leaf lettuce. Sowing seeds, plant health care, even some fun facts… it’s a one-stop shop.

Here’s what we’ll be discussing:

“Lettuce” continue!

What Is Leaf Lettuce?

Leaf lettuce belongs to one of several botanical groups of Lactuca sativa, each with different structural characteristics.

As you can imagine, leaf lettuce distinguishes itself with its relatively loose and spreading leaves, which fail to form a distinct, cabbage-esque “head” like other kinds do.

A horizontal shot of vegetable crops growing in the garden.A horizontal shot of vegetable crops growing in the garden.

Collectively, varieties of leaf lettuce are hardy in USDA Zones 2 to 11, and reach mature heights and spreads of six to 12 inches.

With a rapid growth rate, the plant reaches maturity somewhere in the ballpark of 30 to 90 days.

Crispy, tasty, and packed with nutrients such as vitamins A and K, leaf lettuce has been enjoyed by humans for millennia. It’s a key ingredient in healthy meals such as salads, wraps, and sandwiches.

Plus, whenever I add leaf lettuce to a burger I’m about to hork down, it helps me feel like I’m not completely clogging my arteries.

Sowing Leaf Lettuce Seed

The key to delicious, tender leaves is to maintain a fresh supply of young plants. To do this, you’ll have to sow seeds in succession.

As cool-season plants, lettuce is best grown in spring or fall. If you want to get a head start, you can even start the first batch of seeds indoors six weeks before your area’s final frost date in spring.

A horizontal photo of lettuce plants growing in a row in a vegetable garden.A horizontal photo of lettuce plants growing in a row in a vegetable garden.

If you go with indoor seed starting, fill a seed tray to an inch below the rim with a 50:50 mix of coconut coir and perlite, which will be both moisture-retentive and well-draining.

Sprinkle your seeds out over the surface of the media, and moisten it all with a misting bottle.

Cover the tray with clear plastic wrap, then place it somewhere indoors where it’s exposed to bright, indirect light.

The seeds also need temperatures of 60 to 80°F to germinate, so you may need to use a bottom heat mat if your house isn’t warm enough.

For heat meats that add 10 to 20°F to your seedlings, check these out from Gardener’s Supply Company.

Keep the potting media moist.

After the seeds germinate in seven to 10 days and seedlings start to grow, remove the plastic wrap. Thin out the weakest seedlings when they are a couple inches tall and start to crowd each other out.

A horizontal close up of leaf lettuce in the garden that is ready to be harvested.A horizontal close up of leaf lettuce in the garden that is ready to be harvested.

After six weeks pass, you’re free to transplant them into the garden after hardening them off first.

To harden off seedlings, leave them outside for 30 to 60 minutes before bringing them back inside. Add another hour or so of exposure each day, until they can handle a full day of being outside.

Transplant them four to eight inches apart in a fully sunny to partially shaded patch of rich, well-draining, and loamy soil with a pH of 5.8 to 6.5.

At this point, you can direct sow another batch of seeds in the garden in a sunny location with similar soil, cover them with an 1/8 to 1/4 inch of soil, and keep the soil moist.

Once seedlings are a couple inches tall, thin them to about four to eight inches apart, depending on the variety.

A horizontal photo of a leaf lettuce plant growing in the garden.A horizontal photo of a leaf lettuce plant growing in the garden.

A couple of weeks later, direct sow another batch. The idea is to sow multiple rows or groups every two weeks throughout the growing season, thus ensuring a continual supply of young plants for optimal harvests.

How to Grow Leaf Lettuce

Here’s the 411 on what leaf lettuce needs to thrive:

Climate and Exposure Needs

If you’re located in USDA Hardiness Zones 2 to 11, then there’s a variety of leaf lettuce for you. Hallelujah!

Full sun to partial shade is best, although these plants are fairly tolerant of full shade as well.

All lettuces are considered cool season crops and perform best in temperatures ranging from 50 to 70°F. Once temperatures reach 80°F and nights become warm, plants are known to bolt and start flowering.

A horizontal close up of water droplets on a green leaf.A horizontal close up of water droplets on a green leaf.

However, there are several long-lasting varieties that can be productive throughout the entire growing season in many places. Similarly, there are some varieties that tolerate frosts better than others.

If your goal is to grow leaf lettuce throughout the summer, choose heat-tolerant varieties. Also, interplant with tall summer crops like peppers, corn, and tomatoes to provide extra shade.

Season-extending implements work well with leaf lettuce. Row covers and cold frames can allow you to start plants earlier in spring, and possibly even grow them throughout the winter in some areas.

Row covers can also provide shade and delay bolting in the heat of the summer. Not to mention that plants can be grown under cover for the entire growing season as a way to prevent pests from getting to them.

Soil Needs

Taking time to prepare the garden bed has a big impact on your harvest, so it’s best to prepare your beds as soon as possible.

A horizontal close up shot of leaf lettuce leaves curling together.A horizontal close up shot of leaf lettuce leaves curling together.

Ideally, soil should be loamy, well-draining, and rich in organic matter, with an optimal soil pH of 5.8 to 6.5.

To check your soil, reach out to your local extension office to see if they offer soil tests.

Annual amendments of compost or well-rotted manure prior to planting can help foster that richness – it’s as simple as covering your soil with a layer of organic material that’s an inch or two thick, then tilling it into the soil.

Water and Fertilizer Needs

Lettuce is susceptible to water-related stress, so it pays to get this right.

Watering adequately is especially important for an edible crop. Shallow roots leave plants susceptible to water-related stress, so water frequently – whenever the soil feels dry an inch down – and to a depth of at least six inches.

A horizontal shot of red and green oak lettuce growing in a garden.A horizontal shot of red and green oak lettuce growing in a garden.

Be careful not to water too heavily, since soggy soils encourage disease.

If possible, water in the morning so plants have a chance to dry off over the course of the day. Keep in mind that you’ll most likely need to water container plantings more frequently.

If a soil test indicates that the organic matter amendments weren’t enough, you can supplement with an organic fish emulsion fertilizer every two weeks, diluted down to half the recommended dosage. That should help satisfy the high nitrogen requirements of these leafy greens!

Growing Tips

  • Full sun to partial shade is best.
  • Annual soil amendments of organic matter help keep the soil rich.
  • Water your crops whenever the soil feels dry an inch down.

Maintenance

Lettuce is less vigorous in the presence of weeds. A layer of organic mulch will help suppress weed growth, along with maintaining soil moisture.

Prepare the soil a couple of weeks before planting garden crops.

Once weeds begin to appear, lightly cultivate the soil so as to uproot the weeds, but not so heavily that new weed seeds are brought to the surface and given a chance to germinate.

Any flowers that form on your plants should be pinched ASAP.

Leaf Lettuce Varieties to Select

Available in a multitude of varieties and colors, leaf lettuces liven up your garden and your dinner table.

Choosing the right variety for your area and season is key to getting the most out of your plants.

Here are a few of our favorite, mildly sweet leaf types to choose from:

Black Seeded Simpson

‘Black Seeded Simpson’ is simple to grow, with a mild sweetness.

As it’ll be ready for harvest in 40 to 49 days, you’ll be enjoying this quick-to-mature variety in no time.

A square product photo of Black Seeded Simpson foliage. To the bottom right of the frame is a black circular logo with text.A square product photo of Black Seeded Simpson foliage. To the bottom right of the frame is a black circular logo with text.

‘Black Seeded Simpson’

You can find ‘Black Seeded Simpson’ seeds available in a variety of packet sizes from True Leaf Market.

Grand Rapids

A perfect ingredient for classic green salads, ‘Grand Rapids’ is a nice choice with its mildly sweet leaves.

This frilly-edged large leaf type is crisp, tender, and resistant to tip burn.

A square product photo of Grand Rapids leafy greens. To the bottom right of the frame is a white circular logo with text.A square product photo of Grand Rapids leafy greens. To the bottom right of the frame is a white circular logo with text.

‘Grand Rapids’

 Seeds are available from True Leaf Market in a variety of packet sizes.

Lollo Rosso

‘Lollo Rosso’ is an Italian variety with ruffled, dark pink leaves that are green at the base.

It’s sometimes spelled in the feminine, i.e. ‘Lolla Rossa’ – you can choose which name you prefer.

A square product photo of Lollo Rosso leafy greens.A square product photo of Lollo Rosso leafy greens.

‘Lollo Rosso’

Ready to harvest in 50 to 70 days, this mildly sweet cultivar is perfect for warmer climates, as it’s slow to bolt. Seeds are available from True Leaf Market.

Merlot

Not a fan of green in your leaf lettuce? Say hello to ‘Merlot.’

With deep burgundy leaves, ‘Merlot’ only flaunts a touch of green towards its base – not to mention that it tastes delicious, as well!

A square product photo of Merlot lettuce.A square product photo of Merlot lettuce.

‘Merlot’

This one will be ready to harvest in just 55 days.

You can find seeds in a variety of packet sizes available from True Leaf Market.

Oakleaf

Okay, we’ll give you one guess as to why this cultivar is known as ‘Oakleaf.’

Bearing oak-shaped leaves, this type reaches maturity in just 55 to 60 days.

A square product photo of Oakleaf lettuce.A square product photo of Oakleaf lettuce.

‘Oakleaf’

You’ll love the pale green, tender leaves. Seeds can be purchased from True Leaf Market.

Managing Pests and Disease

Keep an eye out for sap-sucking and plant-weakening aphids, which will hide on the undersides of leaves.

Although populations can grow fast and the pests seemingly come out of nowhere, aphids are easily controlled with frequent blasts from the garden hose.

Organic controls like insecticidal soap and horticultural oil help to snuff out aphids and other creepy-crawly pests, while planting insect-repelling onions or chives works well to deter bugs.

Just make sure you check that any insecticidal product you wish to apply is safe for edible greens and take note of how close to harvest you can apply them.

A horizontal close up highly magnified to show an aphid on the stem of a plant.A horizontal close up highly magnified to show an aphid on the stem of a plant.

Cutworms are sneaky and do their damage at night. If you notice seedlings being mowed down at the base or chewed holes in foliage, then these critters may be the culprit.

Diatomaceous earth or finely ground eggshells sprinkled around plants can take care of cutworms, as well as other soft-bodied pests such as slugs and snails.

Rabbits, squirrels, and deer also love to munch on young leaves. Fences or row covers are your best line of defense against these more obvious offenders.

If you notice leaves starting to look scorched at the tips, plants may be affected by tip burn. This physiological condition is typically a result of inconsistent moisture levels, especially during dry spells. It could also be an indication of improper soil pH.

Remember to water consistently, and keep an eye on the weather if you want your crops to thrive.

If you overwater, you may run into soggy-soil problems like damping off and downy mildew, which are best prevented with that Goldilocks amount of irrigation: not too much, not too little, but just right.

Otherwise, you may have to pull afflicted plants if they’re too far gone.

Find more tips for dealing with lettuce pests here or identifying and treating lettuce diseases here.

Harvesting

Harvesting delicious leaf lettuce is pretty simple – think of it as giving your plants a haircut, except you get to eat the hair afterwards!

Okay, maybe not my tastiest analogy.

Anyways, leaf lettuce can be harvested any time it reaches a height of six to 12 inches.

A horizontal close up of a gardener's hands harvesting lettuce.A horizontal close up of a gardener's hands harvesting lettuce.

To harvest, simply cut the leaves two inches above the soil with a clean, sterile knife or pair of scissors. Repeat until the growing season is over!

Alternatively, you can harvest entire plants if you have no interest in subsequent harvests.

Since older plants are more likely to bolt – and develop tough, bitter leaves as a result – don’t hesitate to harvest entire plants before they reach that “peak” harvest time!

It’s best to harvest smaller, yet tasty leaves rather than big ol’ chunks of hard-to-chew bitterness. Unless that’s your thing, in which case you’d love growing endive.

Find more tips on harvesting leaf lettuce here.

Preserving

If you’re ready to eat your lettuce as soon as you harvest it, prep is as easy as rinsing your cut leaves under running water and drying them by hand or in a salad spinner.

Otherwise, you can bag up the leaves in a plastic baggie or lidded container and store it in the fridge for a week or so. If the leaves start to look wet and gross, it’s probably time to say sayonara.

A horizontal photo of fresh green leaf lettuce lying on a white cutting board.A horizontal photo of fresh green leaf lettuce lying on a white cutting board.

I wouldn’t freeze these veggies, freezing damages plant cells, leaving the lettuce wilted and slimy when it thaws. Not the best ingredient for salads.

Speaking of salads…

Recipes and Cooking Ideas

Leaf lettuce can be combined with pretty much any ingredient that could use some mildly sweet, fibrous crispness. So… a ton of different foods. Salads, wraps, sandwiches, burgers… the list is long.

Here are a couple of recipes that deliciously utilize leaf lettuce:

Leafy Sprouts Salad

Whether you go with alfalfa or broccoli sprouts, this salad is dressed with a delicious sorghum chili vinaigrette, making it tasty and packed with nutrients. Yum!

Check out the recipe at our sister site, Foodal.

Triple Berry Salad

With a combo of strawberry, blueberry, and raspberry, this triple berry salad rocks delicious sauteed shallots and walnuts, all glazed with a delightful cayenne-honey vinaigrette. Sweet, savory, and classy.

The recipe is right here, on Foodal.

Quick Reference Growing Guide

Plant Type: Annual vegetable Maintenance: Moderate
Native to: Mediterranean to Siberia Water Needs: Moderate
Hardiness (USDA Zone): 2-11 Tolerance: Cool temperatures
Season: Cool Soil Type: Rich, loamy
Exposure: Full sun to partial shade Soil pH: 5.8-6.5
Time to Maturity: 30-90 days Soil Drainage: Well-draining
Spacing: 4-8 inches Companion Planting: Beets, carrots, onions
Planting Depth: 1/8-1/4 inch (seed) Avoid Planting With: Blueberries, brassicas, cucumbers
Height: 6-12 inches Order: Asterales
Spread: 6-12 inches Family: Asteraceae
Growth Rate: Fast Genus: Lactuca
Common Pests and Diseases: Aphids, cutworms, slugs, snails; damping off, downy mildew, soft rot, tip burn Species: Sativa

Easy to Grow, Easy to Eat

Be sure to get a few things right and you’ll be enjoying fresh garden salads in no time.

Well-prepared, weed-free soil that is well draining and rich in organic material will ensure healthy plants. Consistently moist soil makes for fast growing, happy lettuce.

And successive plantings keep a supply of young, tender leaves at your fingertips throughout the season.

A horizontal close up of the foliage of green leafy vegetables growing in the garden.A horizontal close up of the foliage of green leafy vegetables growing in the garden.

Are you excited to grow leaf lettuce this year? Let us know how long you were able to keep this leafy green from bolting or turning bitter and how you did it in the comments below!

And for more information about growing lettuce in your garden, check out these guides next:

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