There’s a little known fact about lettuce that home vegetable gardeners are happily familiar with: homegrown lettuce has flavor! Those who have the misfortune of having to eat tasteless lettuce from the grocery store just don’t know what they are missing.
Lettuce thrives here in north Florida during the cooler months of the year. If you enjoy salad, there’s no reason that you can’t grow your own. You can purchase lettuce seedlings at area garden centers – head lettuce, leaf lettuce, romaine lettuce – it’s all readily available. Even better, lettuce is easily grown from seed and the variety of lettuce seeds and salad mixes available is nearly endless.
In north Florida, lettuce is generally planted in September-October and February-March. With the use of row covers to protect lettuce from frosts and freezes, you can extend the season right through the winter months. You can start seeds indoors or in a cold frame during even the coldest months of the year (my cold frame is simply an old window and a couple of 4×4’s). I simply grow my seedlings in the nine-pack plastic trays that I save from when I purchase seedlings.
Plant seeds only about 1/4-inch deep and keep moist.
Before it gets too cold in the fall or after it warms up a bit in late winter, you can simply scatter seeds in a prepared bed. After they sprout, you can use a fork to “prick out” young seedlings from the ground and then transplant them in your garden rows or seed trays.
Seedlings mature in the garden in 40-70 days, depending on the variety and conditions. From seed it generally takes 50-90 days to reach maturity.
I grow many different types of lettuce in my front-yard garden, such as sweet red, black-seeded Simpson, ruby and red salad bowl, green ice, romaine and royal oak leaf. Don’t be afraid to be adventurous with seed catalogs and Web sites.
If you plant seedlings about every three weeks you can keep the harvest going from October through early June. A good measure of thumb is to plant four lettuce plants for each person in the household every two few weeks. Harvest the outer leaves from the lettuce plants as they grow. The plants will continue to grow inner leaves.
Harvest mature heads when they are firm. If you have lots of head-type lettuce that will mature at one time, harvest some heads while they are medium in size. If they become too mature and grow elongated, the lettuce will have a bitter taste.
I like to plant lettuce in rows. I space the plants 8” to 12” apart in rows that are 18” to 24” apart.
I generally mix in a good quality, balanced fertilizer (10-10-10) in the soil before I put the seedlings out and then side dress the plants about 30 days later. A good quality fertilizer will have both fast and slow release forms of nitrogen and include a good micronutrient package. Also before planting, I usually mix some organic material into the soil, such as compost from the yard or composted cow manure from the garden center. If I want to give the seedlings a fast start, about a week after setting them out in the garden I water with some Peters 20-20-20 fertilizer.
Water often enough so that your lettuce plants do not dry out.
Lettuce also grows very well in containers, so don’t let the lack of garden space stop you from growing your own salads.
In Niceville, the biggest pest problem that I generally encounter when growing lettuce is aphids. When I see them I spray my lettuce plants with a solution of water and liquid dish soap – three or four tablespoons of Lemon Fresh Joy to a gallon of water (avoid soaps with extra grease cutting ingredients). If that does not do the trick, I apply an insecticidal soap.
Lettuce is at its best just after it has been picked. To store lettuce, put it unwashed in a plastic storage bag and keep refrigerated. Loose leaf lettuce will store well for only a few days (which is why it is rarely found at the grocery store). Head lettuce can keep up to three weeks.