It is May and summer is coming! Think of summer meals and we think of salads. And salads mean lettuce. Although a wide variety of leaves are used in other countries, and we are getting more adventurous, lettuce is still the mainstay of the average salad. And lettuce is not difficult to grow. The great thing about growing your own is that you can harvest leaves at any stage of growth and you don’t need to wait till the plants mature. Even if you can’t grow all the lettuces you need in summer you can certainly grow some to add variety and contrast to the ‘Icebergs’ you buy.
There are various kinds of lettuce, from soft butterhead, crisp Iceberg and Cos (Romaines) and rather tough Batavian and loose-leaf kinds. They can be green or many shades of red. They all need similar treatment. You can sow direct in the beds or in a pot of multipurpose compost or sow in a pot and transplant the seedlings.
The key is that lettuce are ‘cool season’ crops and the seeds will not germinate well if it is too hot (above 25c). So it is best to sow in cool weather, keep the seedlings well watered and try to avoid sowing in heatwaves.
You can sow from now till July. Sow in drills in prepared soil. Lettuce will grow in part shade and they dislike dry, hot, baked spots. Take out a drill with a trowel about 1cm deep. Water this and then sow thinly along the row and lightly cover the seeds and water well again. Watering before sowing helps to ‘wet’ the seeds and it prevents the seeds blowing away if you sow on a windy day. Keep the seeds moist and you should see seedlings in a few weeks.
Soon they will need to be thinned so they are 20-30cm apart but you can do this in stages and eat the seedlings you pull up.
Alternatively you can sow in a pot, transplant the seedlings into cell trays and plant out the seedlings. Or you can buy a pack of seedlings to speed up the process.
Whatever kind you sow you will find that all the plants will mature at the same time so it is best to sow a few every three or four weeks. Even better, buy a mixed pack of seed. These include lettuce with red and green leaves and different shapes and sizes and they provide variety as well as avoiding waste.
If you are just starting then I would suggest you grow ‘Little Gem’ or ‘Intred’ which is a red-leaved alternative. They mature quickly, are tasty and crunchy and they are compact so can be grown 15cm apart – ideal for raised beds and for pots.
Tips: protect young lettuce from slugs. Slugs will destroy lettuce in a night and I HATE picking slugs out of lettuce when I am making lunch. So I put a few pellets around the plants when planting out and as they grow to control them.
Apart from slugs, the most common problem is ‘tip burn’. This is where the leaf tips turn brown and shrivel. It can be caused by drought or by lack of calcium in the soil. Watering will prevent it in most cases but it may be advisable to add lime to the soil in autumn.