April 9, 2015

10 Tips to Grow Great Lettuce - Photo by Jessica Walliser (HobbyFarms.com) 

Lettuce is one of the easiest vegetables to grow, yet it isn’t a staple crop in many gardens. Freshly harvested lettuce is crunchy, nutritious and beautiful. To assist your lettuce-growing efforts, I want to offer these easy-to-follow tips to maximize your harvest.

1. Grow a Variety of Lettuces

Even if your garden is small, grow at least three or four different lettuce varieties. That way, if one fails to meet your standards, other selections can fill in the gap. Grow a few varieties from each different group of lettuce for added diversity; select a mix of romaines, butterheads, loose-leaf and crisp-head types.

2. Pay Attention to Timing

Because lettuce is a cool-season crop, it should find a home in your garden as soon as the soil can be worked, or four to six weeks before your last expected spring frost. Planting lettuce when the weather is warm is a recipe for disaster because the plants will quickly bolt and turn bitter.

3. Plant Seeds and Transplants

To maximize your harvesting window, plant a few nursery-grown transplants at the same time you sow seeds. That way, the transplants will provide your first lettuce crop, just a few weeks after planting, and the seeds will go on to provide subsequent harvests.

4. Protect Your Babies

10 Tips to Grow Great Lettuce - Photo by Jessica Walliser (HobbyFarms.com) 

Simple cloches made of recycled milk jugs with the bottoms cut out and the lids removed will shield young transplants from cold nighttime temperatures. They act as mini-greenhouses and can be left in place until the transplants have acclimated to outdoor conditions.

5. Diversify Your Harvest

Begin harvesting baby lettuce when the leaves are a mere 2 inches tall. To do this, simply snip off the outer lettuce leaves and leave the central growing point intact. Doing this means you’ll have a cut-and-come-again crop of baby lettuce leaves for weeks. But also be sure to leave some of the plants alone so they can develop a full head before harvest. Combining both baby-leaf harvests and full-head harvests translates to months and months of homegrown lettuce.

6. Interplant Lettuce with Sweet Alyssum

If aphids are problematic in your garden, sow a row of sweet alyssum seeds in between each row of lettuce. The small, sweet-smelling blooms of alyssum are very attractive to several species of non-stinging parasitic wasps that use the aphids to house and feed their young. Interplanting with sweet alyssum cuts down on aphid troubles significantly.

7. Control Other Pests Organically

If earwigs are troublesome, lay a few 8-by-8-inch squares of corrugated cardboard around the plants. Each morning, head outside with a bucket of soapy water and shake the cardboard squares over it. Earwigs take shelter in the grooves of the cardboard during the day and are easily knocked out into the soapy water. Slugs can be controlled by sprinkling organic slug baits based on iron phosphate along side the rows.

8. Harvest with a Snap

To harvest baby leaf lettuce, snip off leaves by pinching them between your thumb and forefinger. Using a pair of scissors works, too, though the greens will brown faster. Full-sized heads can be pulled out of the soil—roots and all—or cut with a sharp knife just above the soil surface. Harvest in the morning for the longest shelf life.

9. Wash and Spin

To keep soil and grit from making it to the salad plate, dunk freshly harvested lettuce into a sink full of cold water. Stir it around with your hands and then let it sit for 5 to 10 minutes. All the soil will settle to the bottom of the sink. Lift the leaves out a handful at a time, and rinse them under running water. Place the leaves in a salad spinner to remove the excess water before storing in plastic bags in the fridge.

10. Sow More Seeds

Smart gardeners sow a new row of lettuce seeds every two weeks until the weather gets too hot. This generates a continuous harvest for many weeks. Then, when late summer arrives, start sowing more seeds for autumn harvests. With the protection of cloches or floating row cover, lettuce will continue to grow even as the first snows fly.

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