Lettuce is not only one of the most loved vegetables, it is also one of the easiest to grow. It is also a fast-growing crop. Lettuce doesn’t do particularly well in the heat, but it grows fast enough that it can be grown in the spring and in the fall, and the plant is cold hardy.
Making lettuce seed tape
The traditional method of planting lettuce is to make a shallow furrow, then to broadcast the seeds along the furrow, barely covering them with soil. This isn’t necessarily the best way to grow lettuce.
It might seem that making lettuce seed tape is a needless and time-consuming step. However, it is easy to do and ultimately saves time because there is no need to thin out the lettuce as it grows. When they are several inches tall, the lettuce plants should be about three inches apart. Using traditional methods, this could mean removing quite a few otherwise healthy seedlings.
Setting up the seed tape
“Seed tape” is a bit of a misnomer. This isn’t actually tape. Still, it is very easy to do and it can be done with other small seeds as well.
To do it, mix up some flour paste by mixing just enough water in a tablespoonful of flour to make a thick paste.
Down the center of a paper towel, measure off and mark spots that are three inches apart. By using a ruler to measure and use as a straight edge guide, you can do this in a straight line.
Alternately, if you are square foot gardening, you can mark out a grid of lines on the paper towel, three inches apart. The junctions on the grid will be the seed ‘spots’.
Adding the lettuce seeds
Using a toothpick or something similar, put a drop of the flour paste on each spot on the paper towel. Next, using a pair of tweezers, put two lettuce seeds on each spot of paste. Allow the paste to completely dry.
You can fold the paper towel in half over the seeds while the glue is drying, or you can put another paper towel over the top. This helps to protect the seeds. Note that some people do this using a double thickness of toilet paper, instead of paper towels. I don’t, simply because toilet paper is so fine that it is harder to work with.
How the seed tape works
Paper towels are absorbent, so they will let water get to the seeds when they are planted. The glue holds them in place and makes it harder for the wind to blow them away, while also holding them three inches apart. The glue is water soluble, though, so as the seeds start germinating, the glue has already broken down.
Lettuce has a shallow root system. Because of this, the soil should be prepared to the depth of about a foot; roughly the size of a shovel blade. Rocks, debris, and weed roots should be removed from the soil and finished compost should be worked in.
As with most leafy vegetables, lettuce likes fairly rich soil and the compost furnishes the nutrients. If the compost is worked in prior to planting, it shouldn’t be necessary to ‘feed’ the plants later on.
Planting the seed tape
Even lettuce seedlings are cold-hardy. As long as the roots don’t freeze, lettuce will usually survive cold snaps. The plants thrive in cooler weather.
All that said, the seed should be planted after the danger of hard frost has passed. The young roots are delicate and aren’t very large. A hard frost can kill the roots.
To plant the lettuce, simply lay the seed tape on the ground and barely cover it with soil. Dampen the soil and the seed tape with a fine mist. The soil should be quite damp and should be kept that way until the germinating seeds are a half-inch to an inch tall, but using a stream of water can wash away the seeds. Paper towels are prone to disintegrating when they get wet.
Sunlight and lettuce
Lettuce loves sunlight, though it doesn’t like heat. During the planning stages, a spot should be selected that gets plenty of sunshine every day.
Once the lettuce is an inch tall, it can handle coarser watering, within reason. However, if you can continue to water by using a sprinkler that puts out very fine droplets, the plants will usually grow better. It is worth remembering that fine water droplets are more apt to evaporate than larger ones, so the lettuce should be watered in the cool part of the day.
The soil should be kept fairly damp, which may mean daily watering. If the soil is allowed to dry out, the lettuce can suffer and turn bitter. Also, dry soil encourages bolting. Once lettuce bolts, it becomes very bitter and isn’t suitable for use anymore.
Lettuce in containers
All of the above applies to container gardening with lettuce. Since the root structure is shallow, lettuce makes an ideal container crop. Containers that are just a few inches deep should work well with lettuce.
This also makes lettuce a great crop to grow in a greenhouse, though it does need to be ventilated well enough to prevent heat buildup.
Lettuce is a fast-growing crop. Because of this, the best way to ensure that you have fresh lettuce as long as possible is to plant more lettuce every two or three weeks. For an average family of four, planting a three-foot row every two or three weeks should keep you in lettuce for some time, without suddenly producing so much that you can’t use it all.
If you are using the square-foot gardening method, this would be a one foot square of the grid-style seed tape every 2-3 weeks.
Harvesting is simple. If you are growing leaf lettuce, simply clip off some of the outer leaves when they become large enough to use. Be sure to leave a few of the developing leaves on the plant. Harvesting in this way encourages the plant to put out more leaves.
For head lettuce, the entire head is cut off the plant once it is large enough to harvest. It should be harvested while the head is still tightly packed.
Growing your own lettuce isn’t hard and it doesn’t take a lot of space. Growing your own means that you are in control of the pesticides that are used. It also means that you can save a substantial amount of money. As an added benefit, the lettuce tends to taste better than what could be purchased in a store.