Lettuce is another one of those cool weather crops. It does not grow well when it gets over 75 degrees, especially for the head variaties. In Texas, we plant lettuce the first of February. That allows the lettuce to mature before things get hot and it bolts, or flowers out. Once it flowers out, the leaves grow bitter and basically inedible.
There are basically two kinds of lettuce: head lettuce and leaf lettuce. Iceberg lettuce is an example of a head lettuce. Romaine lettuce is an example of leaf lettuce. You can plant both, but do not plant iceberg lettuce as your head lettuce. There are many flavorful lettuce plants that make heads to try. Iceberg lettuce was bred to withstand long shipping, so is tough and not very flavorful.
Most lettuce is grown from seeds. Lettuce seeds are tiny and hard to handle. You can buy them in a biodegradable tape that you just lay in the furrow. Some of these have fertilizer, too, while others do not. Organic producers should check to see if the tapes are allowable. There is also a device that looks like an old fashion syringe. You put the seed in and depress the plunger to let out one seed at a time. These are great in theory, but I have never found one that works.
In any case, you put the seed 1/4-1/2 inch deep and try to spread it thinly in the furrow. As the little plants come up, you can thin them until they are 8-10 inches apart. The baby lettuce is a delicacy, so wash it and eat it.
Lettuce matures between 65-85 days. However, you can start clipping leaves off when the plant is obviously well started. If you plant a mixture of lettuces, you can clip a few leaves from each plant and have a mixed green salad.
Lettuce uses a lot of water, so be sure to keep the soil moist but not squishy. Lettuce has some problems with fungal diseases, so how your water is important. Try to water with a soaker hose or drip irrigation. Water before 10 am in the morning, so the leaves will dry out before long. It is better if they do not get wet, but that is not always practical.
Snails and slugs thrive in the damp soil and can decimate a lettuce crop. Use iron slug bait such as Sluggo to kill them, not the old copper based bait. The iron bait is much less toxic to birds and animals, including pets. Of course, less toxic is not the same as harmless, so keep pets and kids away from the bait.
Fertilize lettuce with nitrogen when it is planted and about half way through the growing season. Most people in NorthEast Texas have adequate phosphorus and potassium in the soil. You need a soil test to be sure, but always put down nitrogen because it is used up so fast by most plants.
For more help gardening, buy my book, “Preparing a Vegetable Garden From the Ground Up.” Available in print or eBook, this book walks you from choosing the site of your garden all the way through what to do after the harvest. Buy a copy for yourself or a friend today!