How to Grow Lettuce (A Beginner’s Guide)


Butterhead lettuce.

Fresh, homegrown lettuce—there’s nothing quite like it. It’s crisp and flavourful, and puts store bought lettuce to shame!

Whether you’re a seasoned gardener or only starting out, growing lettuce is a fantastic choice. It’s a favorite because it’s easy to grow and a great option for the novice gardener. 

Personally, I love all things lettuce!

So, let’s dive into lettuce. By the end of this article, you’ll know how to grow, nourish and harvest this tasty crop.

Contents

  1. Nutritional Information
  2. Common Lettuce Varieties
  3. Planting Your Lettuce
  4. Type of Soil
  5. Light Requirements
  6. Watering Your Lettuce
  7. Maintaining Your Lettuce
  8. Harvesting Your Lettuce
  9. Pests That Affect Lettuce
  10. Diseases That Affect Lettuce
  11. Lettuce Recipes
Overhead view of leaf lettuce planted in-ground.
Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay

How to Plant and Grow Lettuce

Lettuce is a great option for any gardener, including newbies.  It’s one of the few vegetables you can grow almost anywhere, even if you live in a high-rise.

There are four types of lettuce: crisphead, loose-leaf, romaine, and butterhead. No matter the type, this fast-growing plant is great for containers, raised beds, or in-ground gardens.

Fun Fact – lettuce was originally used for medicinal purposes, rather than a yummy food. It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that lettuce began to be widely consumed as a food.  Today, according to Statista, people in the U.S. eat over 12 lbs of leaf and romaine lettuce per year. 

1. Nutritional Information

Lettuce is a leafy green that’s rich in vitamins and minerals, and low in calories. According to the USDA, one cup of shredded lettuce has around 5 calories and contains the following nutrients,

  • Calcium, Ca 13 mg
  • Vitamin C, total ascorbic acid 3.31mg
  • Folate, total 13.7µg
  • Magnesium, Mg 4.68mg
  • Potassium, K 69.8mg
  • Vitamin A, RAE 133µg

Keep in mind, some varieties, like Romaine, are more nutrient dense than others such as iceberg lettuces.

2. Common Lettuce Varieties

There are two broad types of lettuce – loose-leaf and head lettuces.  Loose-leaf lettuces don’t form tight heads, whereas head lettuces do. 

Within these two broad categories, there are four distinct types of lettuces – crisphead, Romaine, loose-leaf, and butterhead.

Crisphead Lettuce – Also known as iceberg lettuce, this lettuce type forms a tight, dense head. It’s one of the most consumed lettuce types in the United States and Canada. Crisphead leaves are crispy and mild flavored.  They’re great on sandwiches and in salads.  However, they aren’t as nutritious as other lettuce types.  ‘Ithica’, ‘Summertime’, and ‘Great Lakes’, are samples of crisphead lettuce varieties

Romaine – Romaine lettuces have long, crisp leaves with a slightly bitter flavor. This lettuce is rich in nutrients and is also a great choice for salads and sandwiches. You can even grill Romaine lettuce. Varieties include, ‘Parris Island’, ‘Little Gem’, and ‘Little Ceasar’.

Loose-Leaf – These lettuces have loosely packed leaves and come in a variety of colors.  The taste is mild and somewhat sweet.  Loose-leaf lettuce is easy to grow and is a good choice for new gardeners. Varieties include, ‘Red Sails’, ‘Black Seeded Simpson’, and ‘Oak Leaf’.

Butterhead – Butterhead lettuces are also known as Bibb lettuces. This lettuce has soft, tender leaves with a buttery flavor. Like loose-leaf, these leaves can also be green or red in color. Butterhead varieties include, ‘Four Seasons’, ‘Tom Thumb’, and ‘Victoria’.

This is a sampling of the various lettuce varieties. For other options, take a look at this article from Epicurious.

3. Planting Your Lettuce

You can buy lettuce seedlings from a nursery, but most gardeners grow lettuce from seed. Because lettuce is fast and easy to sprout, there’s no need to buy plants already started.  

Too, nursery lettuce tends to bolt quicker. In other words, it’ll go to seed quicker than lettuce you grow from seed yourself.

Starting Lettuce Seeds Indoors

Lettuce seedlings inside individual netted seedling bags.
Photo by Doug Beckers / CC by

You can start seeds indoors in seed trays, or direct sow them into your garden bed or container.  

When starting seeds indoors, use a light, loose soil mix. And, if you’re planting several lettuce varieties, make sure to label them.  Lettuces can look very similar when first sprouting. 

Seeds started indoors will also need hardening off before moving outside permanently. This gives young plants a chance to adjust to the outdoors gradually.

You do this by exposing seedlings to the outdoor climate for a few hours each day, daily increasing that exposure over the course of a week. 

Once transplanted, you can protect them on chilly nights or during harsh weather by using a row cover or repurposing plastic bottles. Cut off the bottoms of the bottles and place them over individual plants. This creates a makeshift protective cloche.

If you’re planting a heading lettuce variety with the intention of letting it fully mature, then starting seeds indoors is a good option. Heading varieties take a little longer to grow. Starting the seeds indoors will give your lettuce a head start (no pun intended!).

Sowing Lettuce Seeds Outdoors 

If transplanting and hardening off sounds like too much work, don’t worry.

Starting lettuce seeds indoors is not a necessity. Lettuce grows fast, and it prefers cool weather. So direct sowing your seeds outdoors is a perfectly good option. And, one I usually recommend.

I direct sow my seeds, even though I have a short growing season. I’ve never had a problem with my lettuce reaching maturity – that is if the rabbits don’t come munching!

As I said, lettuce is a cool weather crop. For most areas, you’ll plant your lettuce in the spring or fall.  In warmer climates that remain above freezing, winter is a good time to plant lettuce.

For a successful crop, it’s also important you grow the right lettuce at the right time.

Two lettuce seedlings planting in the ground.
Photo by MissMessie / CC by

Cold hardy leaf lettuces are good in the spring and fall. In contrast, Romaine varieties are more heat tolerant and less cold tolerant.  They’ll do better with a bit warmer temperature.

No matter the variety, lettuce doesn’t like hot, dry weather. Providing afternoon shade will help your lettuce tolerate the heat better.

Because lettuce is fast-growing and likes cooler weather, in many areas you’ll be able to plant a spring crop and then a second crop in the fall. This will give you fresh lettuce throughout most of the year.

In spring, plant your lettuce seeds outside about 4 weeks before the last frost date.

In the fall, sow your lettuce seeds 4 – 8 weeks before the first frost date.

Lettuce will take temperature ranges of 40℉ – 80℉. But, the ideal temperature range for lettuce is 45℉ to 65℉.

Plant your lettuce on cooler, cloudier days, and avoid planting in the mid-day sun.  

In northern climates, lettuce can tolerate brighter spots. In southern climates, though, areas with either morning sun and afternoon shade, or with dappled light throughout the day work best.

How to Plant Your Lettuce Seeds

Three lettuce seed packages.

Lettuce seeds are tiny. The easiest way to plant them is to take a little handful of seeds and sprinkle them onto the soil. You can do this in a row or over a designated area. Once spread, gently tamp the seeds down to give them good contact with the soil.  

Lettuce seeds need sunlight to germinate. Plant them to a depth of no more than ⅛ to ¼ inch. Only lightly cover them with soil, if at all. You don’t want those seeds too deep.

When it comes to spacing, you have a couple of options. 

Depending on the type of lettuce, you’ll space your lettuce between 4 – 18 inches apart.

The more space you give lettuce, the larger it grows to fill that space. If planting a head variety, plant the seeds further apart to give your lettuce enough room to form its head. 

Alternatively, you can sow your seeds closer together and frequently harvest the leaves. Or, harvest every second plant, letting the others continue to grow to their full size. This spacing works especially well with loose-leaf varieties.

You can also sow additional seeds every few weeks so you’ll have a harvest throughout most of the season.  Just make sure to provide afternoon shade as the temperatures warm.

As you can see, when it comes to planting, lettuce is very versatile.

Lettuce Seeds & Water

Water is very important for your lettuce seeds. So, moisten your soil before planting. 

If planting in a row, an easy way to ensure the soil is moist is to fill the row with water.  Let it sink in, then fill it with water again. Once the water drains a second time, you can sow your seeds.

Regardless of whether you’re planting seeds indoors, in a container, in-ground, in a row, or in an area, that soil must be moist.  

Once planted, give your seeds a gentle watering by either using a watering can with a sprinkler or a hose with a spray nozzle set to a gentle setting.  Don’t turn a hose on full blast or you may wash away your seeds.  

Use the same gentle watering techniques with newly transplanted seedlings.

Both seeds and seedlings will need additional water until their roots are established.

In roughly 1 – 2 weeks, you should see little leaves popping up. Continue watering well for the next 2 weeks. Once the leaves have grown to the point where most of the soil is covered, you can begin slowing down on your watering.

Thinning Seedlings

Crowded lettuce seedlings.
Image by hs lee from Pixabay

If you plan on harvesting your lettuce frequently, you won’t need to thin your seedlings. Frequent harvesting is easier with leaf lettuce and if you’re planting in a container. 

With heading varieties, or lettuce you’re leaving to mature before harvesting, thin your seedlings by picking every second one, allowing the remaining lettuce to grow. You’ll continue picking every second one until your spacing is the distance recommended on the seed packet.

This is another great lettuce perk! You can eat your crop while you’re thinning it. Those young, small lettuces will be tender and tasty.

For thinning, as a general guide, thin loose-leaf lettuce to 4 inches apart; Romaine and butterhead lettuces to 8 inches apart; and crisphead lettuces to 16 inches apart.

Once thinned, you can mulch around your plants to help retain moisture.  This can be very beneficial if you live in a hotter climate.

Container Planting

Lettuce growing in a pot.
Photo by Henry Burrows / CC by

Lettuce does exceptionally well in a container.  And there are several pluses to container planting with lettuce.

Lettuce has shallow roots that hover closer to the surface of the soil. And though it likes moist soil, lettuce doesn’t like soggy soil. In a container, it’s easier to monitor your soil’s water level to ensure the top 6 inches of the soil is kept evenly moist. 

Because of their shallow roots, lettuce doesn’t need a deep, heavy container. This means it’s easier to move the planter to a shadier spot during the hot afternoon.

Containers also offer an excellent advantage when it comes to growing lettuce for its leaves. 

By practicing continuous cutting, instead of allowing your lettuce to fully grow, you can plant a large number of lettuce seeds. In fact, you can increase your production up to fourfold.

To do this, fill your container with well-draining, moist, rich potting soil. Leave 1 – 1 ½ inches of space at the top. 

You want the lettuce crowns below the pot’s rim. This way, as your lettuce grows, you’ll take scissors and cut straight across the container, harvesting the leaves without damaging the crown. You can use the rim as a guide.

If the crown isn’t damaged, new leaves will continue to sprout throughout the season, giving you multiple harvests.

Once planted, as with in-ground seeds, gently tamp down the soil, keeping the seeds uncovered or only lightly covered. Then gently water your seeds. 

To learn more about growing with containers, take a look at my beginner’s guide on container gardening.

4. Type of Soil

Whether you’re growing your lettuce in a container, raised bed, or in-ground garden, keep the top 4 – 6 inches of soil loose, well-draining, and a bit sandier.

Lettuce has shallow, fragile roots, which can easily be damaged by heavy, soggy mediums.

If you want to seed early in the season, raised beds and deeper gardening beds will come in handy. Because the roots are shallow, you can start sowing lettuce seeds even if the lower portion of the bed is still thawing. 

As with containers and in-ground gardens, your seed tray soil should also be a loose, light mix.

Basically, the aim is to have fertile soil that’s rich in nitrogen, and retains moisture, but won’t become bogged down and soggy. To help achieve this, you can mix some organic matter, like compost or earthworm castings into your growing medium. 

Image by Th G from Pixabay

Aim for a pH level of between 6.0 – 7.0.  If you’re not sure of the soil’s pH, you can buy easy-to-use pH testers at most garden centers. 

It’s important not to use heavy garden soil when planting in a container.  Garden soil can be too dense and heavy for a container – especially for your lettuce’s small roots.  

And, keep in mind, when it comes to compost, a little goes a long way with containers. Too much, and you’ll make your soil too rich in certain nutrients. 

5. Light Requirements

In general, lettuce needs between 4 – 8 hours of sunlight, depending on the time of year and lettuce variety.

Lettuce is a cool weather crop.  Although it grows fastest with full sun, your lettuce will last longer if you give it a bit of shade during the afternoon.

In fact, hot dry weather can turn lettuce bitter and cause it to go to seed early.  To prevent this, provide relief from the sun as the season progresses and temperatures warm. 

Here are a few ways you can achieve this.  

  1. Cover your crop with a shade cloth to protect it from the hot afternoon sun. 
  2. Plant your lettuce beneath a taller crop, like a tomato plant.  As the taller crop grows it’ll provide shade to your lettuce.
  3. Plant your lettuce in a spot that naturally gets afternoon shade.
  4. When growing in a moveable container, move your container to a shady spot when the sun gets too intense.

In northern climates and during cooler months, your lettuce will tolerate more sun.  In these instances, it’s okay to plant your lettuce in a sunny spot.

I’ve written an article on lettuce and sunlight. You’ll find it helpful when comes to deciding your lettuce location.

6. Watering Your Lettuce

Two watering cans hanging on a fence.

Lettuce has a high water content. It’s part of the reason why it’s refreshing and hydrating. 

But it also means water is critical for your lettuce’s growth and development.

Being shallow-rooted means lettuce roots sit closer to the soil’s surface. This makes them more susceptible to drying out quickly. Unlike other vegetables that can tap into deeper soil layers for water, lettuce relies on consistent and even watering to thrive.

An inconsistent water supply can lead to stress and imbalances. This, in turn, can cause lettuce to bolt—sending up flower stalks prematurely. 

Your lettuce needs adequate and regular water to maintain its health and prevent undesired bolting.

It’s important to note, although lettuce needs a healthy dose of water, the soil should be moist, but not soggy.  It is possible to overwater your lettuce, especially if planted in a rainier climate. Take a look at my article on overwatered lettuce to learn more.

But it’s not just mature lettuce that needs water. Water is vital for lettuce seeds and new transplants.  

Photo by my_southborough / CC by

These younglings not only need thorough watering when planted, but they’ll continue to need extra water while those seeds are sprouting and those roots are strengthening. This could be anywhere from 2 – 4 weeks.

Roughly 1 – 2 weeks after planting your seeds, you should notice tiny leaves popping up.  Eventually, as your lettuce grows, the leaves will cover more and more of the soil.  At this point, you can start to slow down the watering.

But that doesn’t mean you can now adopt a carefree attitude about water. You must still keep your lettuce well-watered.  

Weather and time of year will play a role, but in general, plan on giving your lettuce a good watering 1 – 2 times per week, at a minimum.  

I can’t stress how important water is to your lettuce. It’s crucial you keep an eye out for signs your lettuce is becoming thirsty.  

These can include,

  1. The leaves look wilted.
  2. The weather is turning hot.
  3. Your lettuce has no, or minimal, afternoon shade.

In all of these situations, your lettuce will need more water.  

Lettuce grown in containers also needs closely monitored, perhaps even more so. Container soil can dry quickly. Grow bags in particular are notorious for drying out. 

Container lettuce usually requires water more frequently, perhaps even daily.  

7. Maintaining Your Lettuce

Inconsistent watering coupled with hot, dry weather is one of the biggest issues with lettuce.

This combination can cause your lettuce to grow tall and leggy. And if not addressed, your lettuce will bolt. In other words, the tall stalks will flower and go to seed. Your lettuce takes this action because of these environmental conditions. The plant thinks it’s dying and so feels the need to reproduce.

I’ve written a whole article on tall, leggy lettuce.  It has valuable information on the cause and prevention of this problem.

Weeds can be another pesky problem because they steal nutrients and water from your plants. 

A single weed, which is problem in a garden.
Photo by Aimee Rivers / CC by

Densely seeded lettuce will have fewer weed problems. But the further apart lettuce is spaced, the more opportunity for weeds to settle into those open areas between the plants.

No matter the spacing, keep the area around your lettuce plants free of weeds. Mulching around your plants, and removing weeds whenever they pop up will help make this task less burdensome. 

Commercial weed killers are available. Personally, I don’t use them, especially around vegetables. But if you want to give them a try, look for natural options or ones that are safe to use by vegetable crops. And keep in mind, any time you use a weed killer you must be careful with the application. Otherwise, you may accidentally kill your lettuce along with the weed.  

Thinning

If you’re harvesting your lettuce leaves every 1-2 days, you may not need to thin your plants. 

Thick planting combined with frequent harvesting is a great option for leaf lettuce, especially ones grown in a container. Here you can take scissors and “mow down” your lettuce leaves.

With in-ground beds, that’s not always as easy. Nor is it desirable if you’re growing heading varieties, or your aim is to harvest your lettuce when it’s fully mature.

In these cases, you can thin your lettuce as soon as it starts sprouting to the recommended spacing level on the seed packet. Or, you can let your plants grow a bit and harvest every second plant. With this option, you’ll have a greater supply of freshly harvested lettuce while still letting the remaining plants reach their full potential.

In general, if thinning your lettuce, aim for the following,

  1. Loose-leaf lettuce – thin to 4 inches apart
  2. Romain and butterhead lettuces – thin to 8 inches apart
  3. Crisphead lettuces – thin to 16 inches apart

Fertilizing Your Lettuce

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m inconsistent with fertilizing my veggies. Partly because I’ve learned that starting with nutrient-rich soil can make a significant difference. 

Amending your soil with good compost can greatly reduce the need for extra fertilizer. 

Well-nourished soil enriched with quality compost provides your lettuce with a solid foundation. The organic matter in the compost helps retain moisture and nutrients.

So, in other words, start with good soil.

However, as your crop grows, you may want to top that soil off with additional fertilizer.  

When choosing a fertilizer for your lettuce, opt for one that’s organic and higher in nitrogen, like fish emulsion. Nitrogen plays a crucial role in enhancing the green color and overall leafy growth of plants. 

If your soil is low in nitrogen, a recommended ratio is 3-1-2, which means the fertilizer should contain three parts nitrogen, one part phosphorus, and two parts potassium. 

But, if your soil has adequate nitrogen, you can use a more balanced fertilizer, such as a 5-5-5. 

Fertilizing becomes more important when growing lettuce in containers, especially if densely seeded.

Lettuce seedlings planted closely together in a container.
Image by Mary Pahlke from Pixabay

Containers have a limited amount of soil and nutrients available. The high density of plants means there’s more nutrient demand. By providing extra nutrients through regular fertilization, you ensure that your lettuces have the necessary nourishment to produce abundant leaves.

Fertilize approximately every two weeks.  With a container, you can dilute the fertilizer to half the recommended strength.

And always side-dress the fertilizer, which means applying it to the soil around the plants vs spraying the leaves directly. This allows the nutrients to reach the roots and avoids any potential damage or burning of the leaves. 

8. Harvesting Your Lettuce

In general, loose-leaf and butterhead lettuces take 40 – 65 days to mature.  Whereas Romaines and crispheads take approximately 70 – 100 days.

But, what makes lettuce such a wonderful garden option is that you don’t need to wait until your crop reaches maturity before harvesting.

There’re basically three harvesting options with lettuce.

  1. Cut and come again – you’ll harvest throughout the season, taking the larger outer leaves, or “mowing down” the smaller leaves, leaving the crown intact.  With this option, the remaining leaves will continue to grow.
  2. Middle-of-season harvesting – you’ll slice the lettuce evenly and fully across the top, leaving the crown intact.  The lettuce crown and roots remain in the soil with the hope that new leaves will form and you’ll be able to get a second growth.
  3. End-of-season harvesting – you’ll remove the lettuce completely by either severing the root or pulling the lettuce, root and all, up from the ground.

The type of lettuce and time of year will determine how you want to harvest your crop.

Take note – harvesting differs slightly for loose-leaf lettuces and head forming lettuces.

Loose-leaf: With loose-leaf lettuce, you can,

  1. Cut at the base of the lettuce and harvest the whole head.
  2. Remove the outer leaves allowing the smaller central ones to continue growing.
  3. Cut evenly across when the leaves are young allowing the lettuce to form new leaves. 

The 2nd and 3rd techniques can be done throughout most of the season.

Head Forming: With head lettuces, you can, 

  1. Remove the outer leaves when the plant is young, then let the lettuce continue to grow.  
  2. Remove the whole head once it’s fully formed.  

Once the head is fully formed, don’t leave your lettuce too long before harvesting or the leaves may become tough.

No matter which harvesting technique you use, when it comes to lettuce, it’s always good to practice “just in time” harvesting.  In other words, lettuce is meant to be cut and eaten within a few hours, so whenever possible, pick your lettuce for meals that day.   

If you’ve planted your lettuce densely, gather the leaves every 1 – 2 days. This will cut down on the need to thin.

With planters, you can use the rim of the pot as a guide for cutting straight across your lettuce crop.

And if you have a lot of plants in a larger area, consider dividing the area into sections. Start harvesting your lettuce leaves in one section. When done, move on to the next section. By the time you work your way back to the first section, the new and remaining leaves will be ready for harvesting.

One last thing, harvest in the morning when the weather is cooler.

How to Store Your Lettuce

First, before storing, clean the leaves well, getting into the bottom crevices where soil can hide.  If you’ve ever eaten a salad where the lettuce hasn’t been cleaned properly, you know what that grittiness tastes like – no one wants that!

Tip – Have a lot of end-of-season lettuce? Consider dehydrating the leaves and grinding them into a powder to be used in smoothies and such.  It’s a great way to get your greens!

Once washed, lettuce can be stored in the fridge for up to 10 days, but it should really be eaten within a few days.  Especially fresh, loose-leaf lettuce.

If you’ve found you’ve left your lettuce a little too long and the leaves have wilted, you can soak them in a bowl of cold water with ice cubes for 15 minutes to revive the leaves.

Don’t store lettuce in the same bin as apples or bananas.  These fruits emit ethylene, which causes lettuce to ripen and decay rapidly.

9. Pests That Affect Lettuce

Common pests that affect lettuce include,

  1. Aphids
  2. Slugs
  3. Rabbits

10. Diseases That Affect Lettuce

Diseases that affect lettuce include,

  1. Bacterial Leaf Spot  
  2. Downy Mildew
  3. Lettuce Mosaic Virus

11. Lettuce Recipes

Lettuce is a delicious, versatile vegetable. Here are just a few ways to make use of this tasty edible.

  1. Lemon Parmesan Lettuce Salad
  2. Cooked Lettuce with Oyster Sauce & Garlic
  3. Thai Steak Lettuce Cups
  4. 10 Ways to Eat Lettuce
  5. Butter Lettuce Salad

Final Thoughts

  • Lettuce is an easy-to-grow, nutritious green.
  • There are four distinct types of lettuce – crisphead, loose-leaf, Romaine, and butterhead.
  • It’s better to grow lettuce from seed vs buying a nursery seedling.
  • Lettuce makes an excellent plant for container gardening.
  • You can plant lettuce thickly and frequently harvest the young leaves. Or, you can space your seeds further apart, allowing your lettuce to fully mature.
  • Lettuce likes cooler weather-ideally between 45℉ to 65℉ – and will need protection from the hot, afternoon sun.
  • Soil should be, rich, loose, and well-draining. It needs to be moist, but not soggy.
  • Water is vital to lettuce. 
  • Keep weeds at bay, and watch for bolting (going to seed to early).
  • Lettuce should be harvested in the morning and within a day or two of when you’re planning on eating it.  

If you found this article on growing lettuce helpful, feel free to share it with your friends.

Angela

Hi! My name is Angela Carr. I started this site to share my love for plants and gardening. My aim is to provide my readers with easy tips and tricks on plant care, fun facts, and encouragement for the new plant owner or anyone questioning the colour of their thumb!

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