‘Tis Almost Time to Plant Lettuce
There are two times of year that are the best times to plant lettuce and other greens: the first is in early spring, and the second is in late summer. Many gardeners miss this end-of-the-season chance to plant lettuce and harvest a fall crop. But I’ll tell you, it is an opportunity that should not be missed. Lettuces such as butterhead, loose-leaf, and romaine grow very well when planted during the last week of August. In fact, I am convinced that the sweetest and most tender lettuce leaves I have ever harvested have come from my fall crop.
By this time of year, I have been harvesting quite a bit of lettuce throughout the season. I use the “cut and come again” method of harvesting lettuce, which means that I pick only the outer leaves, and therefore can harvest again from the same plant in just a few days. Alternately, when you pick lettuce, you can harvest a plant only once by cutting off the entire head at the ground. Regardless of which harvesting method you use, lettuce is a great crop to plant because you can harvest a great deal before the plants go to seed, (which, with lettuce and spinach, is known as bolting.)
My favorite lettuce varieties are… drumroll please…
Over the years, I have experimented with a number of different head and loose-leaf varieties of lettuce and salad greens. My personal favorites are the Red Salad Bowl Lettuce, a wonderful deep-lobed bronze loose-leaf lettuce, and Susan’s Red Bibb Lettuce, a curly red and green loose-leaf lettuce with a very mild flavor. Both of these varieties are heirloom lettuces that I received in my Survival Seed Bank. In addition to being quite tasty, a plus is that they are not as delicate and fragile as many lettuces, and they are slow to bolt, therefore they produce a large number of crisp leaves every season.
In terms of lettuce, both of my favorites are rather slow to grow. They take about 50-60 days until harvest, while some types of lettuce are ready in only a couple weeks. Fortunately, this year I harvested most of my spring-planted lettuce in early July, before the grueling heat wave hit Virginia, (and the majority of the country.) Lettuce generally thrives in cooler temps, whereas temperatures in the 90s, such as those that we have been experiencing lately, cause lettuce leaves to wilt and rot. Loose-leaf lettuce does a bit better in hot weather than head lettuce varieties do. But with temps close to 100 lately, I think that even my Red Salad Bowl and Susan’s Red Bibb Lettuces wouldn’t be looking so cheery. They definitely prefer weather on the milder side. This is why I find it best to plant once in the spring, and once again at the end of summer or beginning of fall. While plenty of my crops, especially my tomatoes, love high temps and a surplus of sunlight, lettuce does not thrive in these conditions.
As you prepare to plant a late summer lettuce crop, here are a few tips to consider:
- Lettuce likes full to partial sun, and should be planted in a spot where it will be sheltered from the wind.
- Greens thrive best in raised beds. It is very important to ensure that you plant greens, any greens, in soil that drains well. If the soil is swampy, your leaves will be bitter. Before planting, prepare your soil by mixing in plenty of compost and peat moss. This will ensure that it drains well.
- Good natural fertilizers for lettuce and other greens are blood meal and bone meal.
- Do not use insecticides on greens. Their leaves are too delicate and you will just burn them out.
- Do not overcrowd your lettuce plants, otherwise the heads will be very small and will not fully develop. Make sure to follow directions on your seed packets in regards to planting. Red Salad Bowl Lettuce, when given enough room to thrive, can grow up to 16 inches wide.
- Keep your seed beds moist- do not allow them to completely dry out.
- If you experience an Indian Summer in September or October, mulch around your lettuce seedlings to help keep them cool.
- If there is danger of frost on a cool autumn night, protect your lettuce plants with a plastic tent, or a plastic milk jug with the bottom cut off over each individual seedling.