Horticulture Magazine

Lettuce Plant Care & Growing Tips

green textured lettuce leaves

Lettuce Overview

Official Plant NameLactuca sativa
Common Name(s)Lettuce
Plant TypeVegetable
Native AreaCultivated
Hardiness RatingMost H2/H4
ToxicityEdible
FoliageAnnual
When To SowMarch, April, May, June, July, August, September
Harvesting MonthsMay, June, July, August, September, October, November
Sunlight

Preferred
Full Sun / Light Shade

Exposure
Sheltered

Size

Height
0.1 – 0.5M

Spread
0.1 – 0.5M

Soil

Preferred
Most Fertile Soil Types

Moisture
Moist but well drained

pH
Any

Whether you favour the humble salad – the most traditional way to eat lettuce – or prefer something a little jazzier like a grilled lettuce leaf, it’s almost guaranteed that you’re at least familiar with this ubiquitous vegetable.

Head to any supermarket and you’ll see the usual suspects: Iceberg, leaf, Romaine, and so on. But this family has many, many more members to get acquainted with.

crisp lettuce plants in garden beds
Crisp, refreshing, and healthy

For the intrepid gardener looking to expand their growing repertoire, lettuce is an intriguing avenue to explore. With a selection of exciting varieties, a long growing season, and a much lower cost per head when you grow your own, there are plenty of reasons to incorporate this vegetable into your plans.

In this guide we’ll give you the rundown on how to grow lettuce in your garden.

What is lettuce?

This plant, Latin name Lactuca sativa, is actually a member of the daisy family. It’s been part of human agriculture for a long time, with recorded growth dating back to the Ancient Egyptians. Since then it’s been commonplace across Europe, with new types cropping up throughout the centuries as people developed varieties.

Intriguingly, the Latin name ‘Lactuca’ has the root ‘lac’, which translates to milk. When cut, lettuce stems exude a white liquid, now known as latex, which Romans incorporated into the name.

Lettuce has now spread across the globe, making a popular and delicious addition to myriad national cuisines. Tasty and versatile, and a reliable source of iron, folate and vitamins A and K, it’s not hard to see why.

How to grow and care for lettuce plant

You’ll be pleased to know that lettuce is easy to grow and, providing you’re diligent with your maintenance, you can expect a bumper harvest. Many gardeners choose to grow multiple varieties of lettuce simultaneously to give them an array of flavours and colours to use in their cooking.

After all, any salad can only be improved by making use of multiple types of leaf –

mixed salad leaves in a black bowl on a stone surface
Mix it up for a more exciting flavour

In this section we’ll cover every aspect of growing lettuce, from sowing through to harvest.

When to sow

With a sowing season that runs from March to September, you’ve got the option to plant multiple waves of lettuce. This ensures a steady supply throughout the year, letting you dip in and out as you need rather than having to make use of thousands of lettuce leaves at once.

If you go for this option, which we do recommend, make sure to protect seedlings early and late in the season. These periods will be cooler than late spring and summer, and cold temperatures can damage lettuce crops. Use a cloche if growing outside, or consider growing in a polytunnel, greenhouse, or similar.

Here’s a little breakdown of when you’ll be able to harvest based on different sow times:

  • Sow indoors in early February and plant out in early March for an early summer harvest
  • Sow outdoors in March through July for a late summer / early autumn harvest
  • Sow outdoors in early August for an early winter harvest
  • Sow a suitable variety in a heated area in September or October for an early spring harvest

As you can see, it’s possible to grow lettuce to harvest for most of the year. Just pay attention to the needs of each variety, and to making sure they’re kept warm enough.

This applies with hot temperatures, too. For summer planting, make sure to shade seedlings and keep them hydrated with cold water.

Where to grow your plant

Lettuce plants do best in full sun, and prefer soil that can retain moisture. Work a few centimetres of compost or manure through the soil before planting out your lettuces, ideally in the autumn before you plan to sow if you’ve left yourself enough time. This will give the matter a chance to break down and release its nutrients into the soil.

Lettuce will also grow in grow bags or containers, just take care to water more frequently.

Sowing from seed

Sow your lettuce seeds just over 1cm deep, and keep at least 30cm between rows. When leaves start to appear, thin out the seedlings by removing the weakest growth. Keep doing this until there’s 30cm between each plant.

The ones you remove are still edible, so take them to the kitchen instead of throwing them out!

Watering

When the soil gets dry, water your lettuce. This is best done early in the morning to give the water a chance to be absorbed or evaporate away, except in very hot spells as mentioned previously. In hot spells, water in the evening.

Fertiliser

Lettuce is a busy crop, growing quickly and making way for new plants to be grown in the same soil during the same season. With this in mind, it makes sense that they need to be fertilised frequently.

You can feed lettuce fortnightly with a 5-5-5 fertiliser, or any where the three numbers (referring to nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium percentages) are close to equal.

Simply dilute the mixture to half strength and apply to the plant in accordance with the instructions on the packet.

Harvesting

Loose-leaf lettuce varieties are ready to eat when the leaves look about the right size. Just trim or pull off a few leaves as and when you need.

Other varieties are ready when the heart forms. Simply cut through the stem to get at the luscious lettuce waiting for you.

close up of person with blue gloves harvesting lettuce plants
Ready for a one-way trip to kitchen city

Storing lettuce

Lettuce doesn’t last long, unfortunately, even in the best conditions. Once picked, aim to eat your lettuce as quickly as possible – ideally in the first few days. This will ensure the crunchiest texture, fullest flavours, and least amount of unsightly browning of the leaves.

If you do need to store it, keep it cool, preferably in your fridge’s salad drawer.

Troubleshooting common issues

Unfortunately lettuce is prone to attract quite the array of pests and problems. Here’s what to look for and how to reduce the likelihood of interference.

Sparrows

These vigilant birds like nothing more than to eat young lettuce plants, and will cause quite a bit of damage if left to their devices. A physical deterrent is your best bet here: Something like chicken wire, garden fleece, or similar. Make sure their inquisitive beaks can’t get through.

Slugs and snails

Simon and Garfunkel once sang that they’d rather be a sparrow than a snail. Growing lettuce, it’s likely that you’ll be finding both.

Lettuce is firmly on the favoured-food list for these slimy visitors. You’ll most likely see slime trails as well as sections of leaves that have been nibbled away.

Thankfully there are plenty of ways to deter slugs and snails from visiting. You can make a beer trap to lure them in, erect barriers of eggshells, or use one of many pesticides.

Aphids

These critters also enjoy visiting and feasting upon lettuce. Though smaller than slugs and snails, they’re still visible to the naked eye. Keep a lookout for small green bugs or their tiny white eggs, and remove by hand if you see them. Then look to see whether they return: If not, you’re in luck. If so, you’ll want to find a pesticide to discourage repeat visits.

Bolting

If conditions aren’t quite right, lettuce is prone to bolt. This means it puts out seed early, and is no longer good for eating. Common causes of lettuce bolting include sowing at the wrong time, and letting your soil dry out.

Bolting is a response to unfavourable conditions, and is a survival mechanism by which the plant tries to put out seed to ensure ongoing survival of the species even if the individual plant can’t survive.

Lettuce get together and be alright

There you have it: Everything you need to grow this crunchy, tasty, and versatile vegetable. Trust us when we say that having your very own near-endless supply of lettuce to draw on as and when you need it is a boon to your culinary exploits. No longer will you spent upwards of a quid on a lettuce, only to use a few leaves and see the rest wilt and turn brown, forlorn and forgotten in the bottom of your fridge. No – now, you’ll have fresh, green leaves whenever you need.

We recommend having a go at different varieties, too. Not only does this expand the flavour palate available to you, but it can extend the growing season to be nearly all year round.

Lettuce for days!

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