one of our most common cool season vegetables. A close
relative of artichoke, chicory, endive and sunflowers,
lettuce is a sprinter from planting to harvest but can
be a challenge. We'll take a look at some of the basic
types of lettuce and discuss cultural techniques for
success. But first a few words about the history of this
actually a member of the sunflower family. It is a
descendant of the weed Lactuca serriola (prickly
lettuce), which probably originated in the region
stretching from Asia Minor into modern day Iran. This
wild lettuce now may be found in many places around the
The wild form is quite bitter, a
characteristic that may be attributed to its milky sap.
This sap contains lactucarium which is similar to opium
in that it has narcotic qualities. There are reports
that the Romans ate lettuce to induce sleep. But don't
dive into the salad bar looking for a high. Our modern
lettuce doesn't contain any significant levels of this
From the original wild forms,
gardeners in various regions selected and bred improved
types of cultivated lettuce that was much less bitter.
Reports of lettuce cultivation date back to Egyptian
tomb paintings that predate 4,500 B.C. Greek writers in
the 6th century B.C. spoke of it being served on the
table of Persian kings. Chinese writings record its use
in the 5th century B.C.
The Romans are credited
with developing the characteristics of our modern
lettuces that were improvements on the narrow leaved,
bitter tasting wild version. This included broad leaves,
non-spiny plants, resistance to early bolting, and
decreased levels of the bitter milky sap. They also
reported growing their lettuce for a brief time in dark
conditions (blanching) to make it less bitter.
was most likely Columbus who brought lettuce to the
Americas. Also present in colonial gardens, lettuce has
been a prominent feature of gardens in this country from
the beginning of our nation to the present day.
Thanks to horticultural work
from the Roman period on to the present we are now
enjoying around 2,000 years of work in developing our
modern improved types and varieties of lettuce. Modern
lettuce is divided into 4 basic groups:
types of lettuce (also referred to as iceberg types)
form large rounded heads of tightly overwrapping leaves.
The exterior is green but the interior base of the head
is white to creamy yellow. While crisphead types are
popular, they generally don't do as well in Texas as
some other types because they are pretty demanding in
their growing requirements. We usually end up with
loose, poor quality heads. Plus the hard, gnarly pale
interior of head lettuce although crunchy is not all
that appetizing in my opinion.
Cos types of
lettuce (also referred to as Romaine types) are also
heading lettuces. But rather than tight round heads they
form tall, elongated heads. Romaine lettuce may be firm
or rather loose compared to crisphead lettuce. Romaine
lettuce has more green leaves and is thus a better
source of calcium and vitamins A and C than crisphead
types. Many varieties are rather slow to bolt, a good
feature for our spring gardens here in Texas. Cos or
Romaine types deserve wider use here in Texas.
Bibb types (also referred to as Butterhead lettuce) form
a tight rosette of fleshy leaves but do not form a head.
They do well in our Texas climate and are popular with
gardeners. Most varieties are a medium green color.
Leaf lettuce (often called loose-leaf lettuce) is
perhaps the best adapted choice for our Texas climate.
It forms loose rosettes of leaves that come in a range
of colors from various shades of green to burgundy
including speckled types. Leaves may be harvested
individually or as with other lettuce types you can
harvest entire plants at one time. Another option is to
"mow" the plants back part way with scissors and then
allow them to regrow for a later harvest.
Lettuce can be started from seed or from
plants. Some gardeners like to direct seed their lettuce
but many prefer to start transplants and then move them
into the garden after they get off to a good start.
Lettuce seed germinates best in moderate to cool
temperatures with soil temperatures of 75 degrees being
about ideal. The seeds are small and flat so some seed
companies now offer palletized seed for easier more
accurate seeding and germination. Lettuce seed won't
germinate well if buried too deep so cover them with
about 1/4 inch of light sand or screened compost. Press
them lightly on the surface to firm soil or growing
media against the seed and then mist them well to
thoroughly moisten. One mistake many gardeners make when
direct seeding lettuce out in the garden is to not
prepare a fine textured, smooth seed bed. Scattered into
chunky, crusty soil lettuce seed will seldom make a good
Keep the seeds moist until they sprout and
get off to a good start. If a seed dries out at any time
during the germination process it will die. If you start
seed outdoors it helps a lot to place a rowcover fabric
over the seed row, suspended to prevent the rowcover
from getting pressed into the soil surface with watering
or rains. The rowcover helps to keep the seeds from
drying out quickly in the sun and drying wind.
Remove the cover to water the seeds once or twice a day
to keep them moist. Use a mister nozzle on the water
hose to prevent blasting the seeds away.
Gardeners often tend to plant more lettuce than they
need. Think about it. How many heads or plants of leaf
lettuce do you eat a week? Plant enough to last a couple
of weeks and a few extras to allow for some that won't
make it. Scatter the seeds one half to an inch apart. It
is really easy to plant them too thick. Then when you
try to thin the seeds it's difficult not to do
significant damage to the remaining plants.
seed leaf lettuce across my wide garden beds in rows
about 12 to 14 inches apart, putting about 15 seeds per
foot with the plan to thin them later once I can assess
the stand. If I'm setting out transplants a spacing of 6
inches is about right. Cos or Romaine types are often
larger and can be set out 8 to 10 inches apart in rows
16 to 20 inches apart. If you are growing a patch of
lettuce to "mow" or harvest young with scissors you can
forgo the rows, scatter seed more densely over the area,
and not thin nearly as much.
When the plants have
two or three true leaves thin them to about 4 to 6
inches apart. If you like you can leave them at about 3
to 4 inches and plan on removing every other one later
in an early harvest, allowing the rest to grow on to
I prefer transplants to direct
seeding. Out in the garden it is difficult to control
growing conditions and germination is often erratic and
the resulting stands poor. By starting your own seeds
you can get them off to a good start in ideal conditions
and then transplant the right number of young growing
plants out into the garden.
In winter start the
seedlings by a bright window or beneath florescent
lights. After they get their first true leaf move them
to a bright outdoor location on mild sunny days. That
way they will grow into stocky, strong plants.
fall start the seedlings in the outer shade of a large
tree or beneath the eaves of your home so they will
receive good light but be protected from the hot sun.
Use a rowcover to slow drying and improve germination.
When the seedlings start to get true leaves, gradually
move them into more light beginning with the early
By the time your early fall planted
seeds are ready to go out into the garden the weather
should be cooling off enough for them to take right off.
Winter started transplants are also hardened off by
their increasing exposure outdoors during a time when
seedlings in the garden would have struggled with the
erratic cold snaps of a Texas winter. Either way you'll
be off to a good head start compared to direct seeded
Stagger your plantings about 2 weeks
apart to keep fresh lettuce coming on through the
season. Lettuce prefers cool growing conditions for best
growth and quality. When the weather heats up in spring
the quality declines rapidly. The leaves become bitter
and the plants begin to "bolt" as the stem elongates
into a tall bloom stalk.
Leaf lettuce varieties
take about 40 days from seeding to harvest while head
types may take 70 days. This is another reason the head
types are more of a challenge.
To get more from
your garden space, consider interplanting your lettuce
with slower maturing crops. Cabbage is slow to mature
and makes a good interplanted vegetable with the fast
maturing lettuce varieties in the fall. In spring you
can start setting tomato transplants in where lettuce
plants are being harvested to make double use of the bed
Another option is to include lettuce in
ornamental beds. The colorful leaf types are downright
pretty and make a great addition to any bed. Lettuce can
even be grown in containers as long as the soil volume
is at least one gallon. Larger containers are even
best if you keep it growing well with adequate soil
moisture and moderate fertilization. Water transplants
in with a dilute solution of soluble fertilizer
according to label instructions. Repeat this application
twice weekly for a couple of weeks to ensure the new
plants are off to a good start.
application of dry fertilizer when the plants have been
in about two weeks should take them on through their
harvest time. Sprinkle one half cup of a 3-1-2 or 4-1-2
ratio fertilizer per 10 foot of planting row. Then
lightly scratch it into the surface and water it in
Lettuce is shallow rooted so avoid deep
cultivation. Stay ahead of weeds so you don't disturb
the lettuce plants later when removing large competing
weeds. Light, shallow cultivation is best. You can mulch
the best when plants are well on their way. This will
also help prevent soil from splashing onto the leaves
during rain or irrigation.
Lettuce doesn't suffer as many problems as do some
garden vegetables. Aphids can be a pest at times but
seldom require treatments and when they do a blast of
water from a hose or a squirt of insecticidal soap is
usually enough to do the trick.
Slugs and snails
can be a problem at times if the conditions are moist
but I can say I have never had them damage my lettuce
plantings. There are some low toxicity baits that work
well if these pests become troublesome in your garden.
Lettuce used to be plagued by several diseases that
could wipe out plantings. Most modern varieties have
some good resistance built in, but at times during wet
periods some fungal rots and mildews may show up. I
suggest that should such a problem arise just pull out
affected plants and keep the new plantings coming rather
than resort to sprays, especially since by the time some
rot shows up it is too late to do that plant much good
with a spray.
Lettuce is fairly cold hardy and
will tolerate light frosts with little to no damage.
Young seedlings are more prone to freeze damage. I find
a cover is usually enough to get it through a freeze.
Cold frames are a great option if you want to grow
lettuce all winter and live in the northern half of the
state where a cold snap can be fatal.
Tip burn is
a condition that can occur when a cool rainy period is
followed by hot, dry weather. Some varieties are more
prone to this than others. Try to maintain even soil
moisture to minimize the problem.
Head types are best harvested after they develop a firm
head. Bibb lettuce is ready to harvest when the plants
have reached about their full size and the leaves are
just starting to cup inward slightly as if to form a
loose head. Leaf lettuce can be harvested at any time
from when you are thinning young plants on. But is it
best to either harvest older leaves, leaving the plants
to grow for later harvests or cut entire plants out when
they reach near full size for the variety.
generally make harvest decisions based on how much other
lettuce is coming along for later harvest. If I have
plenty on the way I'll pull more plants when they are
younger. If not then I may just harvest outer leaves to
get more later on from the older plants.
actually gets sweeter in the refrigerator after a day or
so. The milky sap can become bitter and refrigerating
seems to improve things a bit. If you are planning on
using the lettuce within a day or so you can wash the
leaves or harvested plants before placing them in the
refrigerator. Then shake off any excess water. If it
needs to keep longer go ahead and harvest it dry and
store in a plastic bag where it will keep several weeks.
Wait to wash it until you are ready to use it or the wet
leaves will tend to decay faster in storage.
There are more than 200 varieties of
lettuce available to gardeners. I have tried many
different ones and find that most do quite well if
provided the right conditions. The leaf lettuces and
Romaine type in my opinion deserve the top slots for our
Texas gardens. I try a few new types each year and
really prefer to have several different types growing
together so my salads can be more colorful and
Some common varieties that have
performed well in Texas gardens include those listed
below. However I would encourage you to experiment with
various new varieties of each type. New varieties come
on the market each year and most deserve a shot in our
gardens. Variety blends are another way to purchase
lettuce. These make for some really attractive salad
mixes and are especially good for planting thick and
harvesting with scissors. You can also create you own
blend by mixing seed from several different varieties.
||1, 2, 3,
leaves form small,
compact hearts that blanch to
appetizing yellow color
||1, 2, 3, 4
time favorite; medium green leaves
frilled green leaves with dark red edges
||3, 4, 5
rosettes of dark green leaves, shaped like oak
fringed heads of deep burgundy red over green
||1, 2, 3, 4
lime-green rosettes of delicate, lobed, oakleaf-like
||2, 3, 4
red, deeply lobed, delicate leaves form a large,
frilled leaves add loft and texture to salads
slightly frilled vivid red leaves over a light
||1, 2, 4
heads; interior is pale green to cream; outer
leaves dark, gray-green
green, semi-savoy leaves with maroon speckles; a
Sources: 1 Willhite; 2 Johnny's; 3 Harris Seed;
4 Burpee; 5 Park Seed