Although many gardeners don’t think of late summer as prime planting time, it is! In many parts of the country, right now is the perfect time to sow seeds of cool-season crops. There’s plenty of time for these veggies to produce a hearty harvest before the snow flies. With a little protection from frost, most of them can continue to be harvested until well after winter has settled in.
In my USDA zone 6 garden, I’m busy sowing seeds of radish, chard, spinach, arugula and even carrots, but the veggie I grow the most of every autumn is lettuce.
Six to 10 weeks before our first frost is expected, I head out to the garden to sow several rows of lettuce seeds. While you can certainly plant the seeds indoors and grow them under lights for a few weeks before transplanting them into the garden, I find it’s much easier to directly sow the seeds into the garden; that way, I don’t have to baby the seedlings indoors. I simply make sure the seed rows stay well-watered through August’s heat, and come September, my lettuce seedlings really take off. Most varieties are ready to harvest as baby greens just four weeks after sowing, but I let most of them form a full-sized head because I love the crunch.
The sweet flavor and crisp texture of fall-grown lettuce is unparalleled, but over the years, I’ve found that not all varieties of lettuce are cut out to be grown late in the season; some of them do far better as a spring crop. When deciding which lettuce varieties to sow in the late summer, I look for selections with increased cold-hardiness so that I can keep them in the garden as long as possible after the weather cools. I also look for varieties that are fast-maturing and those that offer a variety of textures and leaf colors to beautify the salad bowl and provide my family with different nutrients.
After many years of trial and error, I’ve come up with a list of lettuce varieties that are well-suited to fall sowing. For me, these selections are sure-fire success stories each and every year.
1. Arctic King
With a name like Arctic King, you know this one has to be good for fall production! Slow to mature (150 days), this butterhead type can survive the winter with just a row cover in place, even where temps frequently dip below freezing, producing beautiful, medium-green leaves.
2. Winter Brown
With a small, loose head, this variety is very robust and survives cold temperatures quite well. The green leaves are tipped with red.
3. Winter Marvel
This European butterhead lettuce is perfect for fall and winter harvests. It’s a tough plant with a tender texture. It’s ready to harvest just 55 days after sowing, so I can wait as late as mid-September to plant it if I want to extend my harvest even longer.
4. North Pole
Maturing in just 50 days, North Pole is a terrific choice for fall planting in cold climates. A butterhead with extreme cold tolerance, the light-green leaves can be harvested all winter long if grown in a cold frame.
5. Four Seasons
Also called Merveille des 4 Saisons, this fast-maturing variety produces a loose head. The rusty-red leaves are crisp, and heads measure a foot or more across.
6. Winter Density
Our personal favorite for fall sowing, this mini bibb lettuce forms a small, romaine-like head. The compact leaves stand about 8 inches tall, and they pack a powerful crunch and excellent flavor. We often get them to overwinter under a double layer of row cover supported by hoops positioned over the planting row.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2015 issue of Hobby Farms.