Tips on Planting Lettuce for the Spring
FOR GARDENERS ACHING to get outside, shake off the winter chill, and dig their hands into the dirt, planting a lettuce bed is an ideal activity. Lettuce is also a good introductory crop for beginning growers. Mary Roberts of Windcrest Farm grows several lettuce varieties on the USDA certified organic farm she owns in Monroe and sells lettuce transplants at the Matthews Community Farmers’ Market. Roberts also teaches beginning gardener classes each spring.
“Of any vegetable for beginners to try, lettuce is one of the easiest,” she says. “It does not have to be staked or twined, and it’s planted early enough that the bugs aren’t out yet.”
Roberts shares some benefits of growing your own lettuce and pointers for a successful salad bowl this spring.
READY THE SOIL
Prepare for spring planting by mulching soil over the winter. Once summer and fall crops are done, remove the old plant material, and cover the soil with chopped leaves or grass clippings from your yard. Do this now to keep the weeds down and prevent soil erosion from winter wind and rain. Lettuce works well in raised beds. Soil temperatures warm up more quickly in a raised bed than in the ground, speeding up seed germination and plant growth.
SEED OR TRANSPLANT?
Lettuce can be planted using transplants or directly seeded into the soil. In the spring, transplants work particularly well because they provide a jump start on the season and are hardy enough to withstand most springtime temperature swings. Depending on the variety and the weather, lettuce can be planted as early as late February and the beginning of March. If temperatures drop significantly, use a row cover to protect lettuce from damage.
PICK YOUR GREENS
Lettuce comes in numerous varieties, which can be harvested as a head or as leaves. Many varieties allow for different harvesting techniques, depending on your preference. Pick the outer leaves at the preferred stage of maturity, or let the head of lettuce mature and harvest it whole. Gradually harvesting lettuce leaves every couple of days extends the harvest season as the plant continues to produce leaves.
MIX AND MATCH
Several lettuce varieties are both edible and decorative enough for use in flower beds or containers on the porch. Roberts likes the heirloom romaine variety Forellenschluss, commonly called speckled trout, which is green with maroon speckles. Another favorite is new red fire, which has deep red outer leaves and chartreuse green leaves inside.
Water is the key to healthy lettuce. Lettuce likes an inch of water a week, or it will turn bitter. If using potting soil or another dark soil, the dirt should be the color of dark chocolate when properly watered. If it’s the color of milk chocolate, it needs water. Another test is to stick your finger in the soil down to your second knuckle; the soil should be moist to that depth. As for sunlight requirements, lettuce only requires about four hours a day—but Roberts says the more sunlight, the better.
PREPARE FOR FALL
Lettuce is a dual-season crop in our area. Once the summer heat arrives, lettuce will bolt, which means it goes to seed and its leaves become bitter. But keep lettuce in mind for a fall crop, planting in late August or September.