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How to plant a lettuce bed

Lettuce was the first vegetable I learned to grow, and it's still one of my favorites.  I tried a bunch of different growing methods then meandered my way back to the same method my father taught me to start with.  My method will take you about an hour the first time you build the cold frame and, if you have some old boards lying around your barn, will cost about about fifty cents in screws and seeds.  After the first time, planting will take ten minutes or less.

Timing:
Lettuce is picky about moisture and heat.  If you don't have enough of one and if you have too much of the other, you'll end up with bitter lettuce.  (I tried to grow Batavian lettuce, which does wait longer before it bolts, but it still got bitter in the summer.)  I recommend planning your planting dates to avoid bitter lettuce season.
In-season salad
Here on the border of zones 5 and 6, I plant my lettuce as follows:

  • February 4 (cold frame)
  • March 4 (cold frame)
  • April 4 (no cold frame)
  • Take a break --- summer's not lettuce time!
  • September 9 (no cold frame)
  • October 19 (cold frame)

Notice that I plant a new set of lettuce about every month --- I grow leaf lettuce and like to eat it at the delicious baby lettuce stage, then pull it up once the first hint of bitterness comes in.  (I often let the April planting self-seed, which means I don't have to do any actual planting for the September "planting.")

You can find out what your zone is here and adjust your planting dates accordingly.

Cold Frame:

Cold frameIf you want to extend your harvest into the winter, you'll need to build a simple cold frame.  I tried a lot of complicated cold frames, then came to the conclusion that the simplest one was the best all along.  To make your cold frame, measure the size of your permanent bed and cut 2X10 boards to the appropriate length --- two for the length and two for the width.  I like to use a miter saw because it has a safety guard and keeps my fingers well clear of the blade, but you can cut your boards with a hand saw or a table saw if you'd rather.

Then simply screw the boards together to make a box.  You'll find it simplest to pre-drill the holes (three per edge), then screw in three inch screws.  Much swearing is bypassed if you do this with a friend....

You can also brace the corners, which will make it easier when you move the cold frame.  But I tend to go for the simplest possible method because I want my lettuce to go in the ground now.  The bed above is on its third season, is made out of half-rotten barn wood, and has been moved twice...and I think it'll last at least three more seasons.  All for about a quarter's worth of screws.

Planting and Covering:

If you've got a good permanent bed, you'll just need to pull out a few weeds and rake the ground in preparation for planting.  If working on new ground, though, you'll want to till the ground well first.  Either way, after raking, I sprinkle lettuce seed liberally (about 5 seeds per inch) over the ground.  I choose to buy cheap lettuce seed in bulk from the feed store where it costs about $3 per cup.  (Yes, we're talking about a baking-sized measuring cup.)  That cup of seed will last me a year or two of lettuce beds.  I've also bought fancy mesclun mixes, but haven't found them to be all that much tastier and the price just isn't right.

Cold frame coverIf you're planting in the late spring or late summer without a cold frame, you're done!  Otherwise, you'll want to cover your bed with some sort of row cover fabric.  I got my row cover for free using the catalog coupon from Gardens Alive, and now three seasons later they're just about ready to be replaced.

I've tried a bunch of different cold frame covers and have settled on simply weighing the row cover down with a few rocks.  Using windows as the cover is problematic because the lettuce bed can get too hot during sunny days and I'm incapable of remembering to water plants which are outdoors during a rainy season.  Mark and I once built a fancy screen-door type cover for a cold frame out of furring strips with row cover fabric stapled on top, but it was a pain to open up so I didn't eat much of the lettuce.  Simple is always best.

Harvest:
Lettuce in a cold frameThen you wait a few weeks, but not very long.  I start eating my lettuce when it's just an inch and a half tall.  I use scissors to cut off the tops of the plants like I'm giving the lettuce bed a haircut, being careful to leave about half an inch at the base of the plant uncut.  You might need to pull out a few weeds, but you should have planted the lettuce close enough together that it shades out most of the weeds.

In warm weather, I cut half of the lettuce in a 4X8 foot bed every day and the lettuce grow fast enough that I can alternate from half to half and eat salad almost every day.  In colder weather, the same bed may only feed us lettuce two times a week.

Don't forget to check out our recipe page giving you ideas for in-season salads!  And don't let the length of this page scare you off --- once you learn to plant lettuce you'll realize it's the easiest vegetable to grow, and far tastier than store bought.



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Love your trial and error stories! I have the green thumb this year and it has taken over my hobbies, as thge best! thanks joe

Comment by Joe Tue Jun 5 13:37:26 2012
Joe --- It sure is fun to experiment when you allow yourself to fail sometimes. I'm glad you're enjoying reading!
Comment by anna Tue Jun 5 16:48:15 2012
soo during the summer months youre not growing lettuce (you say take a break) , or are you at that point , still growing it but the hardest work is done with fall? Explain this pweassse
Comment by Dave Mon Feb 25 11:52:56 2013

As a newbie green thumb lady, I appreciate all your information. Keep posting please! Best energies!

Comment by Sherry Mon Feb 25 11:57:10 2013
Dave --- We just skip lettuce in the summer because there's so much more interesting stuff to eat! There are some lettuces that are supposed to resist bolting in the heat, but they taste very bitter to me. If you're adamant about growing lettuce in hot weather, I recommend finding a shady spot and watering very frequently, and also planting one of the long-standing varieties. Good luck!
Comment by anna Mon Feb 25 16:46:45 2013
I'm in zone 5. I've never used cold frames but it's something I was thinking about trying this year. I'm amazed that you use them in early February! Where I am there is still snow on the ground and the weather has been alternating from feeling like minus 20 C (minus 4 F) to 5 C (41 F). How do I know when the conditions are right for planting outside in a cold frame?
Comment by Amanda Mon Feb 25 21:34:34 2013

Amanda --- There are a few tricks with snow. First is to put up your frost protection before the snow comes! :-) Here in zone 6, we get freeze/thaw cycles all winter, so it's not usually relevant to us, but I also am generally planting into quick hoops that went up in the fall.

Yep, I wrote "quick hoops" instead of "cold frames" --- we've transferred over since I wrote this post in 2008 and think quick hoops are especially useful in snowy climates.

As for knowing when conditions are right for planting --- it's all about soil temperature. Good luck!

Comment by anna Tue Feb 26 09:23:42 2013
I'v just started planting lettuce, it is so easy, we found a lot of the mixes to be too bitter, thanks for your blog.
Comment by Linda Ashworth Sun Mar 3 10:49:42 2013