It’s lettuce week! Kinda like hell week for greek life, but a lot healthier and green. We’ll be exploring the wide world of lettuce in today’s quick crop, the history of this ubiquitous vegetable and how you can start growing your own. Lettuce is one of the simplest veggies to grow, in my experience it’s actually hard to get wrong. Black thumbs, this one’s for you. Lettuce grown at home has much better nutrition and flavor than the store-bought options. If you can’t manage a head of lettuce after this article… Well that’s on me.
Lettuce got its start in agriculture way back in ancient Egypt, around the year 2700 BCE. Thick green stems and oil heavy seeds made this a favorite among ancient civilizations. Extracts from the plant and seed were used in medicine, cooking, and even mummification. From Egypt, lettuce spread to Greece, from Greece, to Rome. All the while, farmers were engaged in continuous selective breeding, choosing less bitter, leafier plants to boost the productivity of their fields. By the time the Romans had the chance to play with the veggie, historical records show that there were already several distinct varieties of lettuce like black seeded, red leaved, crisp and smooth leaves, and bitter leaved chicory.
One of the easiest plants to cultivate, lettuce is a hardy annual that can be grown throughout the gardening season (and all season if gardening indoors). While the plant can be prone to bolting at higher temperatures, lettuce planted outside of peak heat months will thrive. Lettuce is classified as Lactuca sativa, a species name you might recognize if you’re a fan of HTG Supply. The name comes from the original Roman name, lactuca, which referred to the natural latex created by milky stems of cut lettuce. The species, sativa, simple means cultivated or sown in Latin.
Lettuce can be found in every corner of the world. In general, plants have a height and diameter of 6 to 12 inches. Leaves come in many colors, primarily red and green with some varieties demonstrating variegated patterns. Growth can usually be sorted into two types, head lettuce and leaf lettuce. Head lettuce leaves stay in a close, compact formation that form a cabbage-like head. Leaf lettuce tends to come in more diverse forms, but in general does not form a compact head. Roots are common with a main taproot and a secondary root system.
Planting and Growing
Lettuce prefers full sun and well draining soil. Moist, but not soggy with rich organic matter. Soil should be broken up to prevent large clots of dirt that would otherwise obstruct germination. Per usual, if planting in containers or a raised bed, try to integrate some worm castings or other nitrogen-boosting dry amendments. Fabric and air pruning containers will work well for lettuce, assisting in draining the soil as well as creating a more robust root zone.
• Sow lettuce in its final planting spot or start indoors about 4 weeks before outdoor planting.
• The optimal soil temperature for sowing lettuce is 55-65 degrees F.
• Plant seeds about ¼-½ inches deep
• Thin to about 8-12” apart when they seedlings show 4 true leaves
• Transplant only after plants show at least 6 true leaves
• Fertilize halfway through growth with high nitrogen fertilizers.
• If you see wilting leaves, check the soil, if the soil is dry, water
Water your lettuce frequently, but be careful not to over-saturate the container. If you see any yellowing in your lettuce, that is most likely a nitrogen deficiency. Pests are attracted to lettuce, so consider keeping some organic pesticides on hand to combat any bugs.
Lettuce is harvested when immature, that’s before you start to see any growth or shoots rising up to flower. For a quick snack, remove outer leaves and allow the inner leaves to continue to grow. Mature lettuce gets bitter fast, so be sure to watch for any woody growth in your plants.
• To harvest a full head, dig slightly under the plant and remove the whole plant
• For just leaves, pick the outer leaves off and let the center continue to grow
• Lettuce keeps in a refrigerated space for up to 10 days inside a plastic bag or container
For seeds, I’m just going to let you explore. Most lettuce is going to fall well within our 7-week quick crop window, and there are countless varieties to choose from. Below are links to the lettuces at the category level for Johnny’s, Baker Creek, and Southern Exposure. Choose your lettuce wisely, that $3 seed packet can only… give you unlimited lettuce for the rest of your life.
Lettuce, like most leaf veggies, is usually the bridesmaid in recipes and never the bride. Below are a few compilations (as well as my personal favorite, the wedge salad) that look beyond simple salads and dive into the culinary range of lettuce consumption.
Put on your Bibb, get your black-seeded bagel, and Romaine calm. Lettuce into your heart, and we’ll help you grow your indoor garden. This crop is something that can be grown by anyone and consumed in a swath of forms. Until I wrote this article, I did not know Seared Steak Lettuce Cups were a thing. Now, I’m sure my roommate will be a bit upset when I convert our fridge into a lettuce cup holding zone, but honestly it’s for the better. Take advantage of the time we all have and sow some lettuce today. It’ll taste a heck-ton better than the stuff on the grocery store shelf, plus you can brag to your friends about your newly minted green thumb.