Home Garden Lettuce

— Written By and last updated by Sarah Roberson

Lettuce is one of the most important vegetable crops grown in the United States. On average, each person eats 25 pounds of lettuce each year. Lettuce likes growing at cool temperatures around 60 to 65 degrees. It can tolerate a few days of higher temperatures around 80 to 85 degrees. Lettuce will germinate at 35 degrees but best germination occurs at 70 to 75 degrees. Well, what does this really mean? We can plant lettuce in eastern North Carolina from February 15 to March 15 in the winter. There are some people who start it even earlier by protecting it with some type of cover. Right now is prime time to plant lettuce in eastern North Carolina.

Lettuce is made up of 94 to 96 % water. Therefore, it requires high levels of irrigation. In absence of rainfall, apply 1 1/2 to 2 inches a week. Without irrigation, you are risking crop failure. Drip irrigation or soaker type hoses provide moisture to the root system without wetting the foliage.

Are you wondering what type of lettuce to plant? Based on the type of lettuce, heat tolerance can vary. Romaine lettuce, which has long, broad, upright leaves, can withstand more heat that head lettuce. Butterhead is a tender type of lettuce that can withstand more heat. Likewise, leaf lettuce will stand more heat and have a longer season of production. Leaf lettuces do perform best in eastern North Carolina.

Ithica, Salinas, and Pennlake head lettuce have performed well in North Carolina. Buttercrunch and Nancy Butterhead lettuce are also good producers. If you prefer leaf type lettuce, try Salad Bowl, Slobolt, Grand Rapids, Red Sails or Ruby. Romulus or Signal Romaine lettuce also performs well in North Carolina.

Lettuce likes soil in the pH range of 6.0 to 6.7. In absence of a soil test, apply 1 pound of 10-10-10 per 100 feet of row before planting. Place another pound of 10-10-10 in 1 or 2 bands 4 inches to the side and 2 inches below the seeded row. After the plants begin to grow, side-dress 3 ounces of 10-10-10 per 10 feet of row.

If you have a large garden place the rows at a width that accommodates your tillage equipment. With small or raised bed gardens, row width is not of concern. Regardless of row width, space head lettuce 12 inches apart. Grow leaf and butterhead lettuce in double rows 12 inches apart with plants spaces at 8 to 10 inches in the row.

Set both leaf and head lettuce seed at a depth of 1/4 inch. About 1/4 packet of lettuce seed will supply enough lettuce for one person. Leaf lettuce takes 40 to 50 days to mature, while head lettuce may take up to 70 to 85 days.

Lettuce is shallow rooted and needs only shallow cultivation. In the home garden the best way to control weeds is with a layer of mulch. Once the plants get up and growing, apply a layer of organic mulch to prevent weeds, hold moisture, and keep soil temperatures cooler.

Lettuce seedlings like many vegetable seedlings are susceptible to damping-off. Damping off basically means that the seedlings die. Usually what happens is the plants emerge from the soil and seem to grow fine. Then as the seedling continues to grow, a small area near the soil line remains small and constricted. The result is that the plant can’t take up the water and nutrients it needs for survival so it dies. Once this process starts, there is no solution except to pull up the plant. Prevention is the best medicine in this case. Locate planting beds in a well-drained area or used raised beds to improve drainage. Also purchase disease free seed in order to avoid some of these problems.

Lettuce is attacked by aphids, armyworms, imported cabbage worms, and loopers. However, these pests are more of a problem in the fall than in the spring. If problems do develop, contact the Extension Master Gardener Volunteers to get information about controlling these pests.

Growing your own lettuce for salads and sandwiches can be both a rewarding and enjoyable experience. Remember to plant your garden close to the house. This makes it easier to run out and harvest some fresh vegetables for dinner and puts it close to a water source. If you plan on growing lettuce this year, I wish you good luck!

For more information on vegetable gardening in Pitt County, come by the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service office at 403 Government Circle, email pittcomgv@hotmail.com or call the Pitt County Extension Master Gardener Volunteer Lawn and Garden Hotline at 902-1705. Volunteers are in the office on Monday’s and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. through February. Starting in March they will be in the office during these hours Monday through Friday.