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Complete Guide to Growing Organic Lettuce

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It's a shame that so many people automatically associate flavorless, boring old 'Iceberg' with the word “lettuce.” The world of lettuces is full of color, texture, and flavor. If you grow your own, you have that world at your fingertips. Or the tip of your trowel, as the case may be. Homegrown organic lettuce is a delight. You can harvest it whenever you have a craving for a cool, crisp salad, and the combinations of colors and flavors you can enjoy is limited only by your imagination.

Types of Lettuce

There are five main types of lettuce:

  • Crisphead

    These are generally the most difficult types of lettuces to grow, mainly because they require a long, cool season to mature, and most of us simply don't have those conditions in our gardens. Crisphead varieties are ready to harvest approximately 95 days after sowing seed. In most of the U.S., to succeed in growing crispheads, you need to start the seed indoors in late winter.

  • Cos (Romaine)

    Romaine lettuces also require a fairly long cool season; 70 to 75 days until harvest. Gardeners in areas with very short cool seasons should start the seeds indoors. However, romaines have a distinct advantage over crispheads in that you can harvest the outer leaves of the head as it continues to grow in the garden.

  • Butterhead

    The most well-known butterhead lettuce is 'Boston Bibb.' Butterheads are known for their very smooth (buttery) texture. They form loose heads, which mature 55 to 75 days after sowing. If you can't possibly wait that long, you can harvest the outer leaves of butterheads, and new leaves will grow from the middle of the rosette.

  • Batavian

    Batavians are probably the least well-known type of lettuce. They can be sown and harvested like looseleaf lettuces, but mature into crisp round heads fairly quickly, making them ideal for those gardeners who enjoy crisphead lettuces but have a short cool season. Batavians are ready to harvest (as heads) 55 to 60 days after sowing.

  • Looseleaf

    Looseleaf lettuces are the easiest to grow. They can easily be sown and harvested within a few weeks as tasty baby lettuces. Looseleaf lettuces are harvested by picking or cutting leaves from the plant. New leaves will form, and, as long as you sow fresh seed every couple of weeks, they will provide you with lettuce for plenty of salads.

Selecting a Site to Grow Lettuce

Lettuces are easy to grow, and even more so if you give them the conditions that make them thrive. Lettuces require at least 6 hours of sun per day. If you live in a very warm climate, or have summers in which temperatures frequently reach the mid-eighties, try to give your lettuces a site that is protected from afternoon sun. This can hold off the bolting that is brought on by hot weather. If you can't protect them from the sun, consider installing a shade screen over them.

Lettuces also need good, loose, rich soil to grow well. Soil that has been amended well with compost or rotted manure is ideal. Soils with plenty of organic matter retain moisture better, which is very important in keeping these shallow-rooted veggies happy.

If you have poor soil in your garden, and want to be assured of a decent lettuce crop, consider building a raised bed and filling it with a mixture of topsoil, manure, and compost, or plant your lettuce in a container. Any pot or container that is at least four inches deep will do.

Planting

Lettuce can be started from seed, either indoors or directly into the garden. You can also purchase transplants at the nursery. If possible try to purchase organic seed or starts. There are several good catalogs that carry organic seeds, and many garden centers are starting to carry organically-grown plants.

To Start Seed Indoors:

Lettuce seeds should be started eight weeks before your last frost date. Sow them in sterile seed starting mix, or a mix you've concocted yourself. The soil should be kept cool, below 70 degrees Farenheit. Be sure to give them plenty of light, either by placing them in a sunny window or by starting them under lights. They can be planted out after your last frost date. Be sure to harden the plants off for three to four days before planting them into the garden.

To Plant Seed Outdoors:

Lettuce can be easily sown in the garden as long as your last frost date has passed and the soil is fairly cool. Lettuce usually won't germinate if the soil temperature is over 80 degrees. Simply sow the seed in rows or blocks, following the directions on the seed packet. You will probably have to thin the seedlings that emerge; you can use the thinnings in a salad. For a continual harvest, sow more seed every two weeks throughout the season.

To Plant Transplants:

If you purchase plants, or have started your own indoors, you can plant them out after danger of frost has passed. To plant, simply dig a hole as deep as the rootball and twice as wide, place the plant into the hole with the crown of the plant at soil level and gently firm the soil around the rootball. Water them in well to settle the soil and eliminate air pockets. In general, head lettuces should be spaced about a foot apart, and looseleaf lettuces spaced six inches apart.

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