Home Grown Lettuce

March 12, 2006

Want to see a great example of what makes home grown produce superior to store bought vegetables, then just try growing lettuce in your back yard garden.

Advantages of Home Grown Lettuce

Growing your own lettuce will reward you with sweet, nutritious heads of fresh lettuces that are larger and tastier than any found at your local grocer. And you won’t have to worry about any pesticide residues because it’s easy to cultivate organically grown lettuce in the home garden.

There are hundreds of lettuce varieties to choose from, but I bet you won’t find more than a dozen different varieties offered for sale at your local grocers. Lettuce is commonly divided into categories such as Butterhead, Romaine, Crisphead, and Looseleaf varieties.

Looseleaf lettuces are usually considered the easiest to grow, and are more heat tolerant than most heading varieties. You can also grow Mesclun, which is a quick growing mixture of lettuce varieties combined with other leafy greens and herbs.

Growing Lettuce in the Home Garden

Lettuce is generally a cool season crop. If forced to grow in warm weather conditions the plants will quickly send up a seed stalk and develop a bitter flavor, definitely not what the home gardener is interested in.

Plant lettuce directly in the garden as soon as the soil can be worked, or better yet start seedlings indoors to be transplanted into the garden. Some varieties can be planted thickly in late fall. The small plants will overwinter and can be thinned and transplanted the following spring, resulting in extra early harvests of delicious fresh greens.

Lettuce appreciates a rich soil that is high in nitrogen, so add plenty of compost, aged manures, or other organic fertilizer to the growing bed. Rich, healthy soil, sufficient moisture, and fast, steady growth will go a long ways towards eliminating any troubles that you may encounter when growing lettuce. Just like hot temperatures, drought conditions can cause lettuce to set seed instead of developing large succulent heads.

Lettuce is perfect for growing in raised beds rather than rows. Thin or transplant your seedlings so that they stand about ten inches apart in each direction. When mature the leaves of neighboring plants will barely overlap and the plants will cover the entire bed, blocking out weed growth in the process.

Harvesting Delicious Lettuce

Leaf lettuces can be harvested a leaf at a time, or the entire plant can be cut at soil level, allowing the plant to sprout new leaf growth. Heading varieties should be harvested by cutting the entire plant when it reaches the desired size, and they usually will not produce additional growth.

One secret to enjoying sweeter tasting lettuce is to harvest only during the early morning hours and refrigerate until ready for use. Also be sure to harvest before the heads start to form seed stalks in early summer.

Great Heirloom Lettuce Varieties

Look around and you’ll find plenty of interesting heirloom lettuce varieties for the home garden. Some of my favorites are: Pirat, Yugoslavian Red, Rouge d’Hiver, Amish Deer Tongue, Bronze Arrowhead, Merveille des Quatre Saisons, Sucrine, Australian Yellowleaf, and Forellenschuss.

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  • Last fall I went through all my old seed packets, tossing what was years out of date and planting a few things that I thought might have a chance. My lettuce must have done the overwintering thing you mentioned because suddenly I see I’ve got quite a great supply! I think I missed the opportunity to transplant them to thin them out though.

  • Kenny Point

    How large are those plants? Lettuce usually takes well to being transplanted while the plants are young. Check out the following link for transplanting tips.

  • I have collected a lot of romaine lettuce seeds.
    How do I treat them? When can they be sown? Any info will help.
    PS Harvested seeds in Oceanside Ca, June 2006.

  • Kenny Point

    You really don’t have to do anything special with the lettuce seeds that you’ve collected, just keep the seeds dry and store them in a cool area until it’s time to plant them in your garden. Lettuce doesn’t germinate well in hot weather so wait until temperatures cool down before planting lettuce seeds.

  • Moshe

    Thank you Kenny – great website. I want to ask a few questions. What about watering lettuce – how often and how much water? Also, I have cats that come around the garden sometimes, are they a threat to lettuce? Also, is there anything I can do to minimize the insects?
    Thank you very much.

  • Kenny Point

    Thanks Moshe, it’s tough to give an answer to your question about watering lettuce plants because there are so many factors to consider. What climate are you growing your lettuce in? How much precipitation do you receive? Are you planting leaf lettuce or heading varieties of heirloom lettuce? Are you growing lettuce during the spring, summer, or fall season? When the weather is hot and dry the lettuce plants may need to be watered every two or three days. Fall grown lettuce may never need to be watered because there is more precipitation, less evaporation, and cooler growing conditions. You’ll have to keep an eye out and become familiar with your plants and the moisture levels in your soil. The cats are more of a threat to mice, voles, and baby rabbits that may invade the garden than they will be to your lettuce plants. As for the insects, healthy organically-grown lettuce is pretty resistant to insect pests. Use an organic soap spray or home made garlic mixture to combat aphids and check out my articles on slug control for information on methods to reduce snail damage. Floating row covers can also be used to protect lettuce from insects and animals that would harm the young seedlings. Good luck growing your lettuce plants.

  • Why does the beautiful Romaine lettuce become limp right after cutting?
    It just folds up and shrivels.
    Thank you.

  • Kenny Point

    The thick leaves of Romaine lettuce can actually hold up better after harvesting than other types of lettuce. Harvest the heads during the early morning hours before temperatures begin to rise. You can also give the harvested lettuce a quick dip in cold water and refrigerate or ice the heads down to help keep them fresh and crisp. Whatever you do don’t let the lettuce sit around under the mid-day sun or you’ll have limp, shriveled lettuce for sure.

  • Stefanie

    I live in Southern Indiana and we did not have a real “Spring” this year. We had an early April warm spell, a cold snap that lasted about 10 days and then the temps warmed up into the 80’s and have remained there almost every day for about 2 weeks now. We have also had less than normal rainfall this year. My romaine lettuce has a very bitter taste. I have tried allowing the plants to mature longer to see if this is the problem and it has improved a bit. We are watering every other day and the garden is well drained. Do you think it is just too hot now for this variety and if I should give up on this crop and try again next year? This is my first attempt with lettuce and I’m not sure I am doing it right. Thank you!

  • Kenny Point

    Hi Stefanie, Lettuce does struggle to grow under warmer and dry growing conditions and will often run to seed or turn bitter. There are a few summer varieties of lettuce that are a little more heat tolerant and some growers use shade cloth to extend the lettuce growing season. Lettuce can also be raised as a fall vegetable but the timing of the planting is even more critical than spring sown crops. At this point I would focus on warm weather vegetables and try growing lettuce again next spring. Start the lettuce seedlings indoors under lights and transplant out into the garden a little earlier next season. You can also trial different lettuce varieties to determine which ones will grow best in your climate.

  • Good suggestion.

  • Dee

    Hi Kenny,
    I have an abundant crop of lettuce but I also have an abundant crop of tiny lettuce colored insects….even after I thoroughly wash the lettuce I can sometimes spot the critters. Should I do a soap spray,and if so what proportions?

  • Kenny Point

    Dee, congrats on the nice crop of lettuce but it sounds like your harvest contains tiny aphids. A soap spray should bring them under control pretty quickly. Also, briefly soaking the harvested lettuce in slightly salted water may help dislodge the bugs and make cleaning your crop a litte easier. For a long term solution try attracting beneficial insects such as ladybugs and aphid lions to your garden where they will happily eat all the aphids that they catch on your lettuce.

  • Marty

    Hi Kenny
    I am attempting to grow romaine lettuce for the first time. It is growing well. About 8″-10″ with nice leaves. The problem is that when picked a white milky fluid comes out of where the leaf was torn and the leaves have a bitter after taste. Any input would be help. Thank you

  • Kenny Point

    Hi Marty, try harvesting your romaine lettuce during the early morning hours and see if that helps. Have the lettuce plants started to bolt and go to seed? That’s when I’ve noticed plants that produce that milky fluid. Also, romaine lettuce is usually harvested by cutting the entire plant once the head is fully grown, rather than to harvest the leaves individually.

  • courtney

    I live in zone 9, and am afraid that it is just way too hot most of the year for lettuce, can lettuce be grown in containers inside, as long as they sit in a sunny window? Is there a variety best suited for this?


  • Kenny Point

    Courtney, you can grow lettuce indoors but the plants will need plenty of sunlight or a supplemental light source such as fluorescent tubes or grow lights. I would recommend a loose leaf or cutting lettuce variety such as Salad Bowl or Oak Leaf. You could also try one of the lettuce mixes or mesclun. These cutting lettuces can be planted thickly and harvested when the plants are just four to six inches tall, then they will usually resprout and produce multiple harvests indoors or out.

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  • jan

    I am growing romaine lettuce in my garden for the first time. Can anyone tell me how I know when it is ready for the picking

  • Kenny Point

    Jan, you can harvest your romaine lettuce whenever the center begins to fill out and form a head and it reaches the size that you prefer… anywhere from a baby sized head to fully mature. Just be sure to harvest before the plants begin to stretch out and run to seed.

  • Tamara

    I grew Romain lettuces and one other variety I don’t remember the name of for the first time this year. The lettuces is beautiful! There are few bugs around it. My problem is that the lettuces has little to no flavor. We live on eastern long island where we have very little top soil and mostly sand. We did have 5 yards of top soil brought in. But when the garden was tilled and when I started forming the beds and paths, some sand mixed in. Is it the sand which is causing the lack of flavor? Is there anything else that I can do to improve the flavor? We have started composting, but it’s not ready yet.


  • Kenny Point

    Hi Tamara, it sounds like you are doing the right things and I would just continue to improve the soil by adding compost and organic amendments over time to see if that helps to make a difference. You could also try a bit of foliar fertilization – spraying organic nutrients (from hydrolyzed fish, liquid seaweed fertilizer, etc.) directly on the lettuce’s leaves as the plant is growing. It could also be that the variety of romaine that you planted isn’t the best for your soil type of weather conditions, so another thing to do would be to experiment with growing some other varieties.

  • Mindy


    I have grown lettuce 2 kinds to be exact (leaf lettuce and bi-colored) can you tell me why my bi-colored taste bitter and what I can do to take out the bitterness. I have soaked it in cold water but it does not help. I am in warm summer weather right now. Please my kids do not like the bi-colored because of it and I do not want to waste it help please.

  • Kenny Point

    Hi Mindy, the bitterness in lettuce can be caused by stress from drought, high temps, planting during the wrong season, etc. Or the variety might just not be suitable for your climate… but once the bitterness develops there is nothing that can be done to take it away. You could try using the lettuce in smoothies with other ingredients that will help to mask the bitter flavor.


    Hello Kenny.

    I would like to know what should I do with my Romaine lettuce plants now that they have run to seed. Should I cut them out completely? The plants are about 2-3 feet tall with lots of flowering. They still have some leaves on them but I am afraid to harvest them at this point because I believe they may be too bitter. I harvested twice before, about a month ago, and the leaves were somewhat bitter at that point.

  • Kenny Point

    Hi Melvin, I would cut them out unless you want to save seed from them. You can compost the leaves or feed them to composting earthworms, chickens, etc.

  • Anna Carson

    Dear Kenny,

    I was just wondering when to plant lettuces at home? Also, I was wondering what varieties are going to do the best in a 10-12″ deep bed with GREAT soil in it (I have access to vermin compost and regular compost that I apply in layers)? I cannot seem to find a solid answer anywhere! I live in Alabama (Northern-ish part of birmingham) and the seasons are pretty nice all year… summer is VERY hot and humid though.

    Thank You!


  • Kenny Point

    Hi Anna, the lettuces will grow best when planted to grow quickly and mature during the coolest periods of your growing season. I usually start them during early spring indoors and transplant outside after the garden warms up a bit. My favorites for the home garden are the heading buttercos or romaine types, but the loose leaf varieties are a little easier to grow and less finicky about their growing conditions.

  • Anna Carson

    Hello again! Anna Carson here. I just wanted to say thanks for the reply a while ago! I just cleaned out the email account I sent this comment thread to, and I accidentally missed the reply. I am hoping to grow frisee lettuce this season in my home garden. Will it be easy to grow frisee, romaine, and butterhead (or something like it… buttercos or boston head would be options too!)

    Thanks Again!

    p.s.-will you be answering questions during spring? You seem to be a good source for gardening answers!

  • anne

    We grow our own lettuce every year, no problems, this year we have lost one lot completely, chewed of right to the ground just after planting, the second batch was planted, and the same thing happened within a couple days, have chicken wire over the patch, but still it is gone int he morning, can anyone help us? we have no idea, there is no sign of grubs, anyway it goes to fast for them to do this.
    We live in Maroochydore, Sunshine Coast Qld.
    Than you Anne

  • Kenny Point

    Hello Anne, I’m not sure what types of critters you have in your area but it sure sounds more like a animal than an insect. Here I would be accusing rabbits or groundhogs of being the culprits. Is the chicken wire moved at all? Do you see any animal tracks? Maybe you could start the lettuce in a container and transplant it into the garden after it is larger.

  • When can you get the seeds from romaine lettuce. When they start to flower? or do you have to wait til they go ahead and flower and then after that?

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