Lettuce is one of the easiest vegetables to grow. While we are focusing on growing it in the ground, it should be noted that lettuce does particularly well in a hydroponic system (even one as simple as Kratky’s “set it and forget” system). Soil-grown lettuce will produce a smaller yield than hydroponically grown lettuce, but that doesn’t mean you should avoid it. When properly cared for, lettuce can be an extremely fruitful crop both for your dinner table and your farmer’s market stand.
Lettuce is best grown in temperatures between 60F and 70F, which means it does well when grown alongside broccoli and (while not ideal) even carrots. But where broccoli takes a long time to grow and carrots like to stay on the plant for quite a while, some types of lettuce only need a month in order to fully grow. In fact, microgreens are a popular growing option which is created simply by harvesting lettuce while it is still small. You can easily have ready-to-eat lettuce in less than a month’s time. This makes lettuce an incredibly fast crop, which can be great for stocking up your fridge.
Lettuce enjoys its weather to be cooler than other plants, making it one of the earlier crops you can get into the ground. Germinating the seeds will require a temperature between 40F and 85F, with the wide range speaking to the varied growing conditions of the different subspecies of the plant. Remember, you need to research your plants even after you have learned about their general care. This is because different subspecies can be on polar opposite sides of those temperature requirements. What is great for one kind of lettuce could mean death for another.
Lettuce likes to get plenty of sun; it often prefers to have full sun, but it can also benefit from some partial shade to reduce the heat if the temperature in your local area is quite high. If you are planting multiple crops throughout the year then you will need some partial shade to help seeds germinate during the summer months. Regardless of whether you plant it in the shade or full sun, you will want to stick with a soil that allows quick drainage and plenty of oxygen to get to the roots. Compost or manure can help improve the speed that the soil drains but these both add nutrients to the soil and you need to be careful to keep the pH level between 6.0 and 7.0.
Lettuce does just fine when started from seeds sowed directly into the soil it will be maturing in. Many plants prefer to be started in containers and allowed to grow into a healthy seedling before moving to the garden but not lettuce. This helps increase the ease of growing lettuce, as well as reduce how long it takes to bring it to harvest. Rows of lettuce should be at least a foot apart. Rather than worrying about the distance between each seed, drop ten or so seeds into each foot of the row. Remove the weaker looking plants when seedlings start to sprout so that each seedling has four inches of space around it. This is another feature that changes depending on the subspecies of lettuce, as romaine does best with twice this distance between each head. This can mean that you are removing a lot of little seedlings but these can be added to meals as microgreens and so they don’t go to waste.
Lettuce doesn’t need to be watered too often. You want to keep the soil moist but not completely soaked. Many plants need lots of water for their roots to grow healthy and strong but lettuce doesn’t actually need deep roots. Instead of worrying about roots, the goal of growing lettuce is to produce more leaves, as they are the valuable part. A fertilizer that is balanced or even slightly nitrogen-heavy will help with this. Fertilize your lettuce once a week and water it as needed. Lettuce that needs water starts to wilt and lose its healthy fullness, so keep an eye out for these signs to lock down the best watering schedule. You want to aim to water your lettuce a day or two before these signs begin to show and so you need to listen to the plant to get a feel for how often this will be as the temperature and subspecies will impact this.
If you are a beginner who is nervous about growing their first vegetable crop, then you should start with lettuce. It is very easy to grow, is still valuable when harvested too early, and it uses its physical appearance to clearly communicate with gardeners. This can make it a learning crop to understand how plants speak to us. Plus, as an added bonus, lettuce is packed full of healthy goodness and it even has stress reduction benefits when consumed.