How to Grow Lettuce at Home, Even If You’re a First-Time Gardener
How to grow lettuce at home for the freshest, tastiest greens for your salads.
I moved from New York City to rural Pennsylvania 20 years ago. And to my surprise, other than a limited farm stand, I couldn’t get my hands on fresh, local produce, let alone organic fruits and vegetables. So I decided to grow my own. I’ve gardened steadily since then (I became a Master Gardener in 2006), and though fresh local produce is more readily available these days, I still get the most joy and satisfaction when I cook what I’ve grown myself. It’s easier than you’d think. Whether you have a backyard or just a windowsill, fresh, homegrown produce is completely attainable.
The most important things for first-time gardeners to keep in mind are:
Plan ahead: The earlier, the better! Prepare a nutrient-rich soil a couple months ahead of planting, and have your equipment (i.e., fertilizer, pest-control products, row covers, shade cloth, supports, and gardening gear) ready to go.
Diversify your crops: For a higher chance of a good harvest, crop rotation is the golden rule. Avoid growing two ingredients from the same plant family, such as cucumbers and zucchini, in the same spot for consecutive years.
Water, water, water! A vegetable garden cannot survive, let alone thrive, without regular watering. Be sure to water slowly and deeply, enough to reach the roots.
Pace yourself: Don’t underestimate the time and effort involved in maintaining a garden. Start small — you can always notch it up next year.
To get started, it helps to have a gardening game plan, and a clear sense of what you plan to grow. I recommend beginning with something easy, reliable, and versatile — like lettuce.
Most lettuce varieties are very forgiving. They can thrive in most climates, in direct sun or shade, in pots, backyards, or even window boxes. Plus, their long growing season (approximately four to six months, depending on the type) gives some room for trial and error. Not to mention, lettuce, especially loose-leaf varieties like oak leaf, wilts rapidly after being harvested, making it a prime candidate for growing at home, where you can enjoy it at its peak just minutes after clipping. Here’s how to get growing:
Use pelleted seeds
Although already-sprouted seedlings are more convenient than seeds, it can be difficult to find a wide variety at nurseries. I recommend starting from seed using pelleted seeds (seeds that have been coated in clay to give them a smooth, uniform shape). They may be more expensive than regular seeds, but they’re easier to handle and can last you all season long.
Lettuce loves shade
Lettuce is especially prone to sun and heat damage. Plant taller crops that cast shade on the tender plants or have an agricultural shade cloth ready. Consider your climate when selecting the shade cloth that’s right for your home garden. For hot southern climates, use one that filters out 50% of the sunlight ($30, gardeners.com). For northern growing zones, go with a shade cloth that filters out 30% ($210, johnnyseeds.com).
Make a commitment
For a constant supply of lettuce, you’ll need to seed it at regular intervals — weekly, if you plan on eating a big bowl of lettuce every day. Although caring for it is not difficult, lettuce requires regular attention. It is one of the first vegetables to wither and die when it lacks water.
Change up your lettuce varieties
Staggering out different lettuce varieties allows you to match the lettuce to your seasonal taste. In the fall, you might prefer arugula to throw into robust grain bowls. In the summer, a batch of romaine for crisp Caesar salad. Diversifying your lettuce varieties is also key to finding out which ones work best in your soil and microclimate, and at what time of the growing season.
Pick the right leaves
For the beginner gardener, loose-leaf, baby-leaf, and mini-head lettuces, as they’re most often labeled in seed catalogs, are the easiest varieties to start with — they’re simpler, faster to grow, and milder than full-size head lettuce. Leaf lettuce also allows you to cut off a few leaves as needed while the rest of the plant keeps growing. Head lettuce can be a bit trickier. It’s more likely to attract pests that make a home in the compact heads, and it’s more susceptible to rotting in wet weather. But to get the best of both worlds, pick a variety like the strikingly beautiful Forellenschluss, an Austrian heirloom variety that can be grown as either head lettuce or baby-leaf lettuce. You can browse through expansive lettuce seed catalogs at rareseeds.com, territorialseed.com, and trueloveseeds.com.
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