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I've been growing lettuce since my very first garden. As a kid growing up, one of the things that I most looked forward to from Grandpa's spring garden was wilted lettuce. I remember Grandma frying bacon in a skillet, adding sugar and vinegar to a bit of the bacon grease, and pouring the mixture with the crushed bacon, over the top of fresh leaf lettuce straight from the garden. It's a simple pleasure that I still enjoy every spring.
Grandpa always grew the same variety of leaf lettuce every year - Black Seeded Simpson. It's harder to find these days, but it's still out there if you look and is worth the effort to find. Ive tried growing Romaine and other head varieties with success, but my favorite is still Black Seeded Simpson.
Any variety of lettuce, whether leaf, head, or romaine types, makes a great addition to your spring garden. Planting lettuce can take place a couple of weeks before the average last frost date for your area. It is a bit less cold hardy than cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower, but can take a light frost. Lettuce plants grow and mature fast. 4-6 weeks from planting in may cases. Which is good, because many varieties turn bitter in the warmer temperatures of summer.
Leaf lettuce and spring mixes should be sown directly in your garden. Lettuce prefers loose, sandy rich well drained soil, but will produce well enough in heavier less fertile soil. Plant them by creating a shallow furrow (about 1/4 inch deep) and about 4 inches wide. Scatter the seeds in the furrow, and cover them with fine soil no deeper than 1/4 inch. This will create a wide row that is dense in lettuce leaves, and easy to harvest.
Head lettuce and Romaine can be either started from seed indoors, or from started plants purchased from a nursery. They can be sown directly in the garden as well, but you'll have to thin the seedlings mercilessly. Romaine should planted or thinned to about 6" apart, and head lettuce should be about 12" apart.
If you have heavy clay soil, or your soil forms crust when it dries, cover the seeds with potting soil, instead of garden soil. This will aid in germination and allow the tiny seedlings to break the soil surface easier.
Lettuces don't lend themselves to preserving. Eat them fresh from your garden while they last. You can grow more in your fall garden.
Harvesting lettuce (leaf type) can begin as soon as the leaves are about 5-6 inches high. Harvesting can be done repeatedly until higher temperatures turn the leaves bitter. Just use a pair of scissors to cut the leaves off about an inch above the ground. More leaves will come on after cutting.
Head type lettuces can be harvested as soon as the head is fully formed. Each plant will only make one head, similar to cabbage, so once you've cut the head from the plant, go ahead and pull it up.
Lettuces mature quickly enough that you might be able to plant a summer crop of something else in the same row when its finished.
With the exception of the occasional grazing rabbit, I've never really had a problem with pests on my lettuce plants. I have read that spring grown lettuce has much less problems with insect pests that when grown in the summer or fall, which may explain why I've not had many problems.
You can learn more about common pests and diseases of lettuce plants by following this link:
Lettuce Pests & Diseases
Fresh home grown spring lettuce is a pleasure to grow and to eat. If you are thinking about growing lettuce, try it in your spring garden. It's easy to grow, matures fast, and is a healthy addition to your spring diet.