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All Things Garden,  Beginner Basics,  Grow Guides

Growing Lettuce: How to Plant, Protect and Harvest Lettuce

Let’s talk growing lettuce! While it’s not necessarily the most thrilling crop of them all, I think lettuce deserves a spot in every garden. It’s fast and easy to grow, has fairly low disease and pest pressure, and who doesn’t love a fresh, crisp homegrown salad? Plus, there are so many beautiful and unique lettuce varieties to grow beyond what you see at the store. So, follow these tips and learn how to grow lettuce successfully.

This guide will cover the ideal temperatures to grow lettuce, how to start lettuce from seed, different varieties, plant spacing, along with sun, soil, water, and fertilizer needs. We’ll also explore ways to protect lettuce from heat or frost to prolong your growing season, as well as the best ways to harvest and store lettuce to make it last!



What’s the best time of year to grow lettuce?


Like most leafy greens, lettuce grows best during spring or fall in most climates. This cool-season crop thrives when temperatures are in the 50s and 60s (F), though some heat-tolerant varieties will also grow well in the low to mid 70’s too. In places with mild winters, you can grow lettuce right through the winter. Find the best time to start lettuce seeds or plant seedlings in your area with our handy planting calendars – they’re available for every zone!


A planting calendar for zone 9 which shows when certain types of vegetables should be sown or started indoors, outdoors, planted outside, as well as first and last frost date.
Tip: If you’re not growing lettuce from seed, simply follow the “transplanting” timeline on your zone’s calendar as a guide for when to plant nursery starts.


Will lettuce survive in heat?


Lettuce can tolerate a few warm days here and there (in the 80’s) especially if it cools down at night. But an extreme heat event or prolonged temperatures over 75-80°F will make lettuce “bolt” – or go to flower then seed rather than growing new leaves. The existing leaves will also become increasingly tough and bitter. So, if your lettuce starts to bolt, it will taste best if you harvest it sooner than later! Some lettuce varieties are more forgiving and slow-to-bolt than others.

Pro tip: To extend the lifespan and quality of plants, use shade cloth to keep lettuce cool during warm conditions.


The inside of a raised garden bed full of rows of lettuce covered with hoops and row covers to protect them from the wildlife and cold weather outside. Grow lettuce if you need to harvest a quick crop or grow throughout the season.
Sheltering lettuce with shade cloth during a few unusually hot spring days. (Shade cloth usually comes in black, we just happened to have some old white sheets too.)
A raised garden bed full of mature head of various types of lettuce. One of the varieties is bolting as the center of the plant reaches upwards into a spike in hopes of flowering and making seeds.
A couple months after planting and several mini heat waves later, most of our heat-tolerant lettuce was doing fine – except the Black Seeded Simpson, which was the first to bolt or go to seed.


Is lettuce frost hardy?


Yes, mature lettuce plants will survive light frosts – and even a hard freeze or two! However, the harder the frost, the more leaf damage will occur. Frost-damaged lettuce leaves appear thin, dark or discolored, and wilted. They aren’t great to eat, though your chickens or worm bin will like them! Cold temperatures regularly below 45-50°F also makes lettuce grow more slowly.  

Therefore, plan to protect lettuce from frost when possible, especially tender young seedlings. One option is to shelter them with hoops and frost cover. Cut off frost-damaged leaves to make way for fresh healthy regrowth. 


A few rows of lettuce growing in the ground have all died and are laying on the ground from frost.
Frost-damaged lettuce. It will likely grow new leaves, but the existing ones are toast!
Raised garden beds are pictured with hoops and frost row covers over them to keep the seedlings safe from frost and birds.
Soon after planting out all our spring seedlings (including lettuce) we had a late frost warning. So, out came the hoops and frost cover to protect them all!


How much sun does lettuce need? Can lettuce grow in shade?


Lettuce grows best when it receives full sun, or at least 6 to 8 hours of direct sun per day. However, most varieties of lettuce will tolerate partial shade (4 to 6 hours of sun) and may even benefit from afternoon shade during warm weather. 


How long does lettuce take to grow? 


Lettuce grows very quickly, making it an ideal crop for short growing seasons, as a filler crop between others, or for succession planting many rounds of lettuce over a longer growing season. Most lettuce varieties form mature heads in less than 60 days after planting seed, though you can start harvesting young leaves far sooner – in 30 days or less. 


Lettuce varieties


Romaine, iceberg, redleaf, bibb, buttercrunch, salanova… There are dozens (if not hundreds) of different types of lettuce to grow! Grow lettuce varieties that you like to eat, but also read descriptions to find varieties well-suited to your climate and growing preferences. For instance, we always seek out heat tolerant or bolt-resistant lettuce varieties to help offset our unpredictable springs and warm fall weather. 

Personally, I like lettuce with a fairly open head structure to accommodate cut-and-come-again or perpetual harvesting (explained more in the “harvest” section below). It’s also fun to grow a few different colors! Some of our favorite lettuce varieties include Coastal Star, NevadaFrecklesMagentaRed Mist and Muir – all of which are heat tolerant lettuce varieties.

Growing lettuce from seed will give you the most options, though your local nursery should carry several different types to choose from too.


A raised garden bed with five rows of various types of lettuce growing. Grow lettuce to make your own salads at home.
From bottom to top: Freckles, Nevada, Red Mist, Black Seeded Simpson (was great but did bolt sooner than the others), and Magenta.


How to grow lettuce from seed


Here are some tips for starting lettuce from seed. If you’re growing lettuce from nursery seedlings instead, skip ahead!


  • You can sow lettuce seeds directly outside in your garden, or start seeds indoors and transplant seedlings outside a few weeks after they sprout. I personally like to start lettuce inside so birds and insects can’t go after the tiny vulnerable sprouts. 
  • Lettuce seeds need light to germinate, so you’ll need to have them under bright light if you’re starting indoors! A sunny window will do in a pinch, though the seedlings may become leggy. I always recommend using a grow light for the best results when starting seeds indoors. 
  • Lettuce seeds also prefer slightly cooler soil than most other seeds. The ideal soil temperature for lettuce to sprout is 60-75°F, though they’ll sprout in temperatures as low as 40°F (albeit slower). On the other hand, lettuce seeds will actually go dormant at high temperatures (over 85°F+). So, do NOT use a seedling heat mat for lettuce unless you’re starting seeds in an exceptionally cold spot! 
  • Sow lettuce seeds on the surface of the soil (lightly pressed in) or gently covered with no more than ¼” of light fluffy soil. Remember, they need light to sprout!

  • Outdoors, sow and/or thin lettuce following the spacing recommendations below.
  • Keep the seeds and top of the soil moist (not soggy) to encourage germination, and then switch to bottom-watering indoor seedlings once they’ve sprouted.

  • Once the lettuce seedlings grow their first set of true leaves, thin them down to just one seedling per cell. I recommend trimming out excess seedlings rather than plucking them out.
  • Thereafter, follow other common seed-starting best practices, including hardening off indoor-raised seedlings to prevent transplant shock. 


Related guides: Seed Starting 101, How to Thin Seedlings, Fertilizing Seedlings, Grow Lights 101, Hardening Off, and Transplanting Best Practices


Four 6 cell packs with various lettuce seedlings growing in them, most cells have two or three seedlings per cell. They will soon be thinned down to one seedling to maximize plant growth.
About 10 days after sowing seeds. Time to thin! Thinning early promotes rapid growth.
A scissor is bracing to cut one of the two seedlings in the one cell of a 6 cell pack. Thin the seedlings when you grow lettuce to one seedling per cell for optimal growth.
Removing extra sprouts to leave just one seedling per cell. I prefer to cut with fine snips rather than pull, so I don’t risk breaking the roots of the “keeper”.
A hand is holding lettuce microgreens after they have been thinned from the seedling trays of lettuce below so there is only one lettuce plant per cell.
The extras don’t go to waste! Eat these nutrient-dense salad microgreens.


How far to space lettuce plants


Lettuce spacing varies depending on the type of lettuce and intended use or size. Most lettuce varieties need at least 6 inches of space between each plant (center to center) to form full heads. Varieties that produce larger heads may prefer up to 8 inches of space, such as romaine or butterhead. Smaller loose leaf lettuces can be planted as close as 4 inches apart, while those intended to be used for baby greens are often scattered or sown in a single dense patch with very little space between plants.

Good spacing is essential for lettuce to thrive and to grow nice dense heads. Crowded plants are in competition for nutrients, airflow, root space and water, and can lead to spindly growth. This applies to lettuce growing in the garden as well as indoor lettuce seedlings – which is why I always recommend thinning seedlings early on! Overcrowded plants are also more prone to disease and pests.


 

A raised garden bed with drip tape irrigation has small lettuce seedlings planted in rows in between the drip tape. The colors of the lettuce range form greens and reds to combinations of the two. Aaron is standing just beyond the beds, looking at the camera.
Some people questioned this spacing when I shared our freshly-planted lettuce bed on Instagram. But check out the next photo!
A close up image of a large garden bed overflowing with five rows of various lettuce varieties. From speckled red and green, to dark and light green, as well as light and darker red, the varieties are endless.
About a month later, the lettuce heads filled in quick! Then we continued to harvest from the same plants for several months thereafter.


Soil, water and fertilizer for lettuce


Lettuce grows best in soil that is well-draining, loose, and moderately rich in organic matter, such as potting soil or native soil that has been amended with compost and/or worm castings. Lettuce also likes regular water (at least twice per week) and consistently damp (not soggy) soil. We installed automated drip irrigation in all our raised beds. We and the plants both love it!

Lettuce plants have a shallow root systems, so be sure to mulch around them! Mulch will prevent the top few inches of soil from drying out, and also buffer the plant roots from temperature swings. 

Lettuce needs adequate nitrogen to support lush leafy growth, so consider adding a gentle slow-release organic fertilizer to the soil prior to planting. Or, apply dilute liquid seaweed, alfalfa tea, compost tea, or fish emulsion after planting/during the growing season. 


A small red lettuce plant growing in the soil next to a drip line with an emitter directly behind it. Using drip irrigation is a great way to grow lettuce.


Can I grow lettuce in pots?


Yes, lettuce is a fantastic crop for container gardens! With its small stature and shallow root system, lettuce grows very well in pots – including grow bags, wine barrels, plastic pots or terracotta. You can even grow lettuce indoors in pots under grow lights or in a bright sunny windowsill! Choose a container that is at least 6 to 8 inches deep and has adequate drainage holes in the bottom. Wider containers may give you enough space to grow a few lettuce plants per pot.


Potential lettuce pests


The most common lettuce pests include slugs, snails, pillbugs, caterpillars, beetles, grasshoppers, and aphids. However, I find lettuce attracts far fewer insects than kale and other leafy greens! Birds, rabbits, deer, squirrels, and other rodents may also be tempted to nibble on your lettuce. If needed, shielding lettuce with hoops and floating row cover (e.g. insect netting) or individual cloches can be effective at protecting the plants from a variety of pests – especially vulnerable young seedlings. See more options for plant covers here.

Related pest control guides: aphids, caterpillars, slugs and snails


How to harvest lettuce


You can harvest lettuce at any stage, and any way you see fit! Pluck individual small leaves when the plants are still young to enjoy as baby leaf lettuce. If you do that, always make sure to leave several leaves behind to continue to photosynthesize and grow, and never cut the very centermost leaves. Or, you can wait until the plant matures and harvest a full head of lettuce at once. In that case, I suggest cutting it out at the base rather than pulling out the roots. Some varieties will grow back! 

I love to use the cut and come again method to harvest lettuce. Rather than harvesting the entire head, we cut or gently pull off a few of the outermost or oldest leaves from each head as needed (every few days to once per week). That way, we can harvest lettuce from the same plants for many many months. This is also a great way to get a lot of lettuce from just a handful of plants!


A raised garden bed with a number of heads of large romaine lettuce plants. A hand is pulling down one of the outer leaves for harvest.
The “cut and come again” method of harvesting lettuce: routinely remove a few of the lower, outermost leaves from each plant for a prolonged harvest.


The best way to store lettuce


The best way to store fresh lettuce is in the refrigerator in an airtight container, such as a large food storage “tupperware” or glass container with a lid, or in a sealed plastic bag. Add a tiny splash of water inside to help keep things moist. In my experience, lettuce stays good and crisp for over a week this way! 

For the best results, harvest homegrown lettuce when the plants are perky and it’s cool outside (such as first thing in the morning or late evening) and then get it into the refrigerator as quickly as possible to prevent wilting.  


A wicker basket mostly hidden by a bountiful bouquet of various lettuce varieties and baby leafy greens. The backdrop is a brick walkway lined with a lavender bush to the baskets right. Grow lettuce for a healthy meal anytime.


And that’s how to grow lettuce.


I hope you feel excited and empowered to grow some gorgeous lettuce of your own now. When we first began gardening, lettuce wasn’t on the top of our priority list for some reason. Now, I can’t imagine our cool season garden without it! Please let me know if you have any questions in the comments below. If you found this information to be useful, please consider pinning or sharing this post.


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