Lettuce: growing tips and variety guide

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Lettuces are an essential crop for every garden – easy and quick to grow, and perfect for pots or small spaces. Plus, there’s a huge range of varieties worth planting, so pack your plot and fill your salad bowl with frilly, oakleaf, heart and loose leaf lettuces in all shades of green and tan. red !

sow and grow

  • When to sow: August to April in warmer regions; September to March in cooler regions
  • When to transplant: Year-round in warmer regions; August to May in a cooler area
  • Position: Full sun
  • Harvest: 10-12 weeks
  • Good for pans
  • Good for beginners

Lettuce seedlings transplant easily.  Put out a punnet every two weeks for a continuous supply of fresh leaves.

PIXABAY/Stuff

Lettuce seedlings transplant easily. Put out a punnet every two weeks for a continuous supply of fresh leaves.

Begin

Although we might think of lettuce in terms of refreshing summer salads, this leafy crop generally prefers cooler temperatures and tends to bolt if it gets hot or dry. Grow it in your flower beds as a shoulder season crop in the spring and fall, then confine it to containers in the summer and winter, as you can keep them in the shade when it’s hot and move them outside. most sheltered place or even sheltered when it is cold.

Lettuce seeds will germinate at relatively low temperatures (starting around 10°C), so you can sow directly or in containers from late winter to mid-autumn in temperate and early fall regions. from spring to early fall in cooler regions. You can plant lettuce plants pretty much year round in mild, temperate regions and from early spring to late fall further south.

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Plant lettuces close together for maximum production.  Regularly picking the outer leaves for your salad bowl gives them room to grow.

LYNDA HALLINAN/Stuff

Plant lettuces close together for maximum production. Regularly picking the outer leaves for your salad bowl gives them room to grow.

Step by step

  • Lettuce seeds are small and photodormant, which means they need light to germinate, so sow thinly at the surface of the soil, or on top of the seed mix if growing in trays, and barely cover .
  • You can sow lettuce directly, but it’s easier to protect them from slugs and snails if you start them in trays or jiffy pots for later transplanting.
  • Keep the seed tray or newly planted seeds just moist and you should see signs of germination in 7 days.
  • If your seedlings look overcrowded, it means you’ve been a little clumsy while sowing seeds. Don’t worry – just thin out when 2-3 true leaves have formed. Or, leave them for another week, then eat the thinners as microgreens.
  • If you start in trays, seedlings can be planted in the garden in about 3-4 weeks.
Red leaf lettuces tolerate cooler temperatures and lower levels and are therefore a good option for winter salads.

SALLY TAGG/NZ GARDENER/Stuff

Red leaf lettuces tolerate cooler temperatures and lower levels and are therefore a good option for winter salads.

Cultivation tips

Give lettuces a spot in full sun from fall through spring, but in afternoon shade in the hottest part of the year. You can grow them on the shady side of a bean row or corn block to keep them cool.

Prepare the area with plenty of compost and sheep pellets and a dusting of lime.

Lettuces have shallow roots, so they can dry out quickly even in the ground. They will perform best if the soil remains consistently moist – mulch around this crop to conserve available water in the soil. A short period of water stress, even if it does not cause the plant to bolt, means that the leaves start to taste bitter.

However, you don’t want to overwater either, as they also dislike wet feet and waterlogged soil.

And overhead watering (where you wet the leaves rather than the soil) will expose them to various fungal infections. If your soil is heavy and tends to become waterlogged, grow lettuces in pots to give them the drainage they need. Weekly liquid feed with worm tea or half-strength liquid fertilizer.

Lettuce 'Little Gem' grown on a sunny windowsill.

SALLY TAGG/NZ GARDENER/Stuff

Lettuce ‘Little Gem’ grown on a sunny windowsill.

Lettuce in pot

Lettuces are an excellent crop for growing in containers, and if you opt for cut-and-turn varieties, a few large pots are enough to provide you with salad greens for several months – just harvest leaf by leaf and plant some. some. new sowings approximately every three weeks.

Choose a suitable size pot (the smaller the pot, the faster it will dry). Use a good potting mix that contains a well-balanced, slow-release fertilizer and a moisture-retaining agent that will help retain water in the soil.

Place your pot in a warm, sunny spot facing north, out of the wind and, in places with hot summers, somewhere in the afternoon shade during the summer.

Irrigation is key to success with lettuces, so if you tend to rush watering, invest in a self-watering pot with a built-in reservoir so the soil is less likely to dry out.

Growing lettuces in pots means that you can, with a little planning, continue to grow lettuces all winter long, although you must move the pot to a conservatory or tunnel in the south as lettuces cannot not take more than a gel tickle.

'Tennis Ball' lettuce is a compact butterhead type lettuce.  Its loose rosette of light green leaves is easy to pick and excellent for small gardens or container growing.  Matures 60 days from direct seeding.  From Kings Seeds.

Kings Seeds / Stuff

‘Tennis Ball’ lettuce is a compact butterhead type lettuce. Its loose rosette of light green leaves is easy to pick and excellent for small gardens or container growing. Matures 60 days from direct seeding. From Kings Seeds.

Remarkable varieties

Lettuces can be divided into four groups.

Crisphead Batavian varieties such as ‘Iceberg’ and ‘Great Lakes’ and ‘Winter Triumph’ (a good choice in colder regions) have crisp leaves that curl over each other to form a heart. Grown in the right conditions and at the right time of year, the leaves are super crunchy and sweet. But they need more space than straight, cut and pieced varieties, and are slower to mature and more demanding in their cultural requirements – prone to center rot in cold, damp conditions; bolt if it is hot and dry (although plant breeders have worked to develop varieties that will develop reliably in summer); and will turn to mush immediately if faced with a freeze.

Cos or Romaine lettuces such as ‘Rouge d’Hiver’ and ‘Little Gem’ have elongated, upright leaves that form a loose heart in the center. The ribbed leaves are essential for Caesar salads and strong enough to be filled with Thai or Mexican style ground meat mixtures. Moreover, you can harvest these varieties leaf by leaf.

For something a little different, ‘Silvia’ is a glamorous little red cos with a sweet taste and buttery texture. As with most salad plants, the red color is deeper in cool weather, although it can handle a range of growing conditions. Pair it with ‘Paris White Cos’ for a great color combination both in the garden and on your plate.

'Lollo Rosso' is a loose lettuce with attractive ruffled edges.

123RF/Stuff

‘Lollo Rosso’ is a loose lettuce with attractive ruffled edges.

Loose-leaf lettuces such as ‘Lolla Rossa’, ‘Lollo Bionda’ and ‘Drunken Woman Fringed Head’ are also excellent as cut-and-turn crops, with the soft leaves growing in rosettes rather than forming hearts. They grow very quickly, mature in less than two months (and you can start picking young leaves after just one month) and they come in a huge range of varieties, textures and colors to keep your salad bowl looking stylish. ‘Green Salad Bowl’ produces a large rosette of wonderfully tender light green leaves; again, if you like to play with colors, pair it with ‘Red Salad Bowl’, an organic variety.

Finally, head lettuces such as ‘Buttercrunch’ and ‘Summer Queen’ form an open but clustered rosette in the center, surrounded by a fan of loose, soft leaves. Head lettuce probably holds up better than any lettuce in hot weather, but it still works best as a shoulder season crop and needs some shade during the hottest part of the day in summer. ‘Merveille des Quatre Saisons’ is an old variety of this group. It has great flavor and lives up to its name (which translates to Marvel of Four Seasons) by performing well throughout the growing seasons.

Another attractive heirloom is ‘Perella Rougette Montpellier’ which is green at the base, fading to cranberry red on the outer edges of the leaves.

If you can’t decide, sow a packet of mixed lettuce seeds or a gourmet salad mix.

Net of lettuce to protect against birds.

RACHEL CLARE / NZ GARDENER / Stuff

Net of lettuce to protect against birds.

Repair

If your lettuce seeds are not germinating, the most likely culprit is lack of light. Lettuce seeds will also fail to strike if conditions get too hot (a temperature below 21°C is best).

Once they have risen, remember that almost everyone finds lettuce delicious! Slugs, snails and birds will eat this crop, especially when it is newly planted.

A cloche is a good way to protect them from pest predation, while also providing shelter from unexpected cold spells. (You’ll often see it suggested that beer traps are a good control for these gastropods or that slugs and snails don’t crawl on coffee grounds or broken eggshells.

New Zealand gardener trials found none of these pest control methods effective, but they didn’t seem to hurt us either, so if they work for you, go for it!)

Lettuces can also succumb to the attentions of the lettuce aphid (Nasonovia ribisnigri). Native to Europe, these pests are a crispy lettuce nightmare because once they get to the heart of the lettuce, they can wreak havoc unseen. If this is a problem, sow the aphid-resistant iceberg type hybrid ‘Bug Off’.

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