When you dream of delicious homegrown lettuce, is your ideal image clouded with bitterness, bolting and less than satisfactory results? That was the case with my greens-growing fantasy until just a couple of years ago when my husband and I decided it must be possible to produce the lush beds of lettuce shown in seed catalog photographs.
I have tried to grow good lettuce everywhere I’ve lived, but until now, my best results came from a little garden spot high in the Rocky Mountains, where morning and afternoon shade kept the soil cool and the lettuce sweeter. That location was far from ideal though, and my crop often suffered the same lettuce aggravations experienced by gardeners everywhere.
Planting the seed in cold spring soil, I waited days for the tiny seedlings to emerge. They took their time sending up the first true leaves in the cool spring weather, and, because of the morning and afternoon shadows, they seemed even more lethargic than usual. As the days grew longer, the lettuce finally took off, just as the weather warmed up.
The ensuing warm afternoons sent the plants into a growth spurt. Thinking they were almost ready to eat, I decided to hold off harvesting for a couple more days, to let the plants fill out a little. If you are an experienced lettuce grower, you know what happened next. The young plants started their vertical growth spurt and the leaves picked up a strangely soapy taste that quickly turned to a disagreeable bitterness. Suddenly they sprouted stalks, right behind my back, and went to seed. I’d hardly had a salad out of the whole bed.
Year after year, I tried to outsmart the lettuce by picking young leaves before the plants matured, but these yielded skimpy salads. I grew giant beds of lettuce and ate the immature leaves before the plants bolted, but soon tired of picking skinny greens. I tried to grow slow-bolting varieties, without success.
Finally, here in the high desert of Utah, with its nippy spring weather and broiling hot summers, my husband and I decided to face the lettuce monster head on. Our goal was simple: to create the perfect lettuce bed, and produce bounties of lush, sweet, generous lettuce in many varieties. And for the past two years, at last we have succeeded. Here’s how.
The native soil in our yard is a heavy alkaline clay. Even after several years of mulching, composting and adding manure, our garden’s soil wasn’t good enough to grow fine, sweet spring lettuce. Our solution was to build raised beds filled with custom blended soil.
Our lettuce-growing medium consists of a simple mixture of composted manure, peat moss, a little sand and compost from our compost heap. We placed these items on top of our regular garden soil and tilled them all together. Although the proportions are approximate, our mixture consists of about one sixth each compost, composted manure, sand and soil, and one third peat moss or coir. After initial mixing, we sprinkled about a half inch of perlite on top of everything and lightly tilled it once more.
If you already have sandy soil, omit the sand, and if your soil is acidic, amend with lime to bring it closer to a neutral pH.
The early planter gets the lettuce
After dismal trial and error, we realized that lush, generous lettuce plants would never be ours if we direct-seeded in cold spring soil, so we sowed our lettuce seeds early and then earlier. At first, we started the seedlings indoors, in peat pots or plastic pots filled with potting soil. We moved the pots to a sunny porch during warm days and then back inside at night. This method produced pretty good plants, but not as lusty as we had hoped.
The following February, we planted our lettuce in a small dome-style greenhouse we built for that purpose. We warmed the greenhouse with an electric heater on the nights that froze brutally – lettuce can freeze hard, recover and grow well, but we were counting on big, strong plants for the garden. By the time we set the lettuce plants out in March, they were half grown (about the size they used to be when they’d bolt and go to seed).
Planting times reported here correspond to our last frost date, about mid-May most years. To figure out when to start your seeds, count back about two-and-a-half months from your last frost date and start them then.
There’s magic in moisture
Our lettuce languished when the soil was allowed to dry out, and that’s partially responsible for the bitterness. Other crops don’t mind drying out between watering (some even need dry periods), but lettuce stays sweet and grows fastest when the soil stays moist. To keep the fluid flowing, we installed a simple drip irrigation system for our lettuce bed – it cost about $20 from the local hardware store.
Most drip systems include a filter, plastic tubing to bring the water to the beds, and emitters or capillary drip tubing to deliver water to the plants. Our kit included drip tubing, but we also experimented with emitters. Both worked well. We kept our lettuce bed moist during the entire growing season with a constant low-level supply of water.
If you feed it, lettuce keeps coming
It may seem like overkill, but we weren’t taking any chances with our lettuce patch so we added compost and slow-release fertilizer pellets about half way through the season. The reward for this effort was fresh greens for most of the growing season.
Harvest extends season
If you grow lettuce in this intensive way, you will have no doubt about when to harvest because the plants will be bright, full and lush. Rather than pulling the plants, cut them straight across with a serrated kitchen knife. You’ll want to cut above the crown (the place where the stems and the roots meet) to promote growth of additional small, sweet heads. For late-season greens, sow a few lettuce seeds a couple of inches from the original plant after the first harvest.
Shade offered by the adjoining plants and constant moisture will nurture some baby lettuce for late-summer and early-autumn salads. Carefully pull out the original plants by the roots when the second crop is big enough to stand on its own.
About the only problem you’ll have with growing lettuce this way is using the abundant crop if it all matures at once. However, unlike gardeners bearing gifts of zucchini, beautiful early lettuce is the most appreciated spring gift you’ll ever give to friends and neighbors.
We think garden lettuce tastes best prepared simply. Using a colander, wash leaves well, keeping a sharp eye out for silverfish or whatever your local pest may be. Spin dry and place inside a crisping bag (plastic or muslin) in the fridge. It takes about a half hour to give the leaves that beautiful crunch. Tear them into pieces, add some chopped parsley, green onions and anything else you have in your spring garden, toss with a light vinegar-and-oil dressing and enjoy.
Cathy Wilson teaches art and writing in a juvenile correctional facility in Utah. She is the author of several books on alternative health and education, and her poetry appears in various literary journals. She and her husband – and sundry children – live and garden on
3 acres in the high desert.