I love growing my own lettuce since nothing makes me feel more like a gardening goddess than harvesting fresh lettuce and creating beautiful salads when entertaining family and friends.
Lettuce (Lactuca sativa) is an annual crop related to sunflowers. It prefers cool soil and air temperatures, growing best between 45 and 65 degrees. Warm weather will create bitter-tasting leaves and cause the plant to bolt, which means that it will complete its short life cycle more quickly, sending up flower stalks, creating seeds and dying. Fortunately, slow-bolting and heat-resistant varieties are available.
I usually grow leaf lettuce, which is the easiest of all the lettuce types to grow. This lettuce allows gardeners to “cut and come again,” meaning you can cut the outer leaves and allow the rest of the plant to grow for later harvesting.
According to one Clemson vegetable expert, “leaf lettuce basically needs only to be planted and harvested.” Leaf lettuce also is beautiful with chartreuse greens, ruby reds and frilly leaves that look gorgeous paired with parsley, pansies and snapdragons in the winter landscape.
Favorite heat-tolerant varieties include heirlooms such as “Black Seeded Simpson” and frilly “Lolla Rosa” and one of my favorites, fancy All-America Selections winner “Red Sails.”
Butterhead and Bibb lettuce also can be easily grown. They form loose heads that are harvested all at once. Romaine, or Cos lettuce, is easy to grow and very nutritious, and there is even an heirloom variety called “Parris Island Cos.”
For an exciting culinary experience, try growing a mesclun mix. These are custom seed blends that typically include several leaf lettuce varieties along with spicy or sweet greens such as kale, mustard, radicchio, endive or arugula combined with cool-season herbs. Mesclun mixes are designed for harvesting while the greens are young and tender, much like store-bought spring mixes.
All varieties of lettuce work well in containers and make harvesting easy. While they look great in traditional containers, they are also quite pretty in “up-cycled” or repurposed vessels. Scour the garage, attic or even the kitchen to find unusual planters that will hold 4-8 inches of soil, ensuring that drainage holes can be added. Once you have confirmed that the container will drain adequately, fill it with good quality bagged potting mix and sow seeds according to the directions on the package. Water well and, in 50-75 days, you will have fresh salad fixings at your fingertips.
If you plan to grow lettuce in your garden and haven’t started yet, there is still plenty of time. For a spring harvest in the Lowcountry, Clemson recommends starting lettuce from seed between Dec. 5 and Feb. 20.
One thing to keep in mind is that lettuce seeds need light in order to germinate. When sowing seeds directly in the garden, cover them lightly with bagged potting media (instead of heavy garden soil) or do not cover them at all, but lightly press them into the soil to ensure good contact.
Lettuce, like most vegetables, thrives in soils with a slightly acidic pH (5.8-6.5) and rich in organic matter. Clemson Extension vegetable specialists recommend applying 5-10-10 fertilizer at 3 pounds per 100 square feet before planting if you have not done a soil test. They also recommend that home gardeners fertilize lettuce once during the growing season with a nitrogen-rich fertilizer such as 33-0-0 at 1 pound per 100 feet of row, or calcium nitrate (15-0-0) at 2 pounds per 100 feet of row.
All lettuces need consistent moisture during the growing season and should be harvested in the morning when leaves are plump and flavorful. Be sure to avoid harvesting water-stressed lettuce.
While lettuce can survive fairly cold temperatures, gardeners may need to protect new seedlings to avoid drying winds.
Inexpensive cloches, or covers, can be made by cutting the tops off of empty plastic soda bottles (one- or two-liter bottles work best) and turning them upside down to cover the plants.
When forecasts predict extremely cold nighttime temperatures, you also can create wire hoops that can be covered with plastic or spun-bond freeze blankets before nightfall. Don’t forget to remove the covers in the morning to allow the soil to absorb warmth from the sun without overheating.
Clemson Extension in Orangeburg and Charleston counties will offer “Growing Terrific Tomatoes,” where home gardeners will learn to grow the biggest, tastiest tomatoes on the block. Join extension agents Amy Dabbs and Morgan Judy for an in-depth look at growing healthy, flavorful tomatoes. Topics include soil preparation, recommended tomato varieties, disease and insect control, plus staking and fertilizing. Participants also will learn about the upcoming “One Terrific Tomato Contest” coming in July.
For details on offerings:
Feb. 19 class in Charleston, http://bit.ly/GrowTerrificTomatoesCharleston.
Feb. 26 class in Orangeburg, http://bit.ly/GrowTerrificTomatoesOrangeburg.
Amy L. Dabbs is the urban horticulture extension agent and Tri-County Master Gardener coordinator for the Clemson University Cooperative Extension. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.