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Making Lettuce Happen

LetuceBy Kelley Joseph

I have tried for a few seasons to grow lettuces and failed several times and this year was the first year I managed to make it happen. SO I wanted to share some tips that made the difference in case anyone here has struggled with it or is interested in adding it. I’m by no means an expert, so that means 1. If I can do it, you can do it too 2. Feel encouraged to add more advice if you have had your own success with it 3. This is definitely a hacking together and not an expensive professional set up so don’t be intimidated or think it takes a lot of complicated gear.

So first, these are things that killed my lettuces before: slugs eating the seedlings, heat scorching the leaves, clay soil rotting the roots, inconsistent watering, heat causing the lettuces to immediately go to flower (aka bolting, meaning hardly any leaves formed), weeds taking over.

So here’re things I have figured out so far to address these issues:

  1. If your spot is sunny, get a shade cover, at least 50% blockage. They are very inexpensive. Or you can use many things as shade cloth too, burlap works great (also as a weed barrier cloth), layer up some netting, thin blankets, linen shades. They have to take the heat but if you’re in a pinch to protect your plants on hot days, get creative. Throw in some sticks and lay your shade cloth across. I use twist ties to attach the cover to bamboo sticks but lots of things will work. You just don’t want that sun to heat your soil too much or burn your plants.
  2. Ideally you want morning sunlight not afternoon sun. If your spot for lettuces gets harsh evening sunlight it will likely burn your lettuces. So with your shade cloth, block any angles that would let in any direct sunlight or at least the afternoon/evening sunlight. Lettuces go to flower when the soil gets hot so keep your soil cool with some loose mulching too, not black plastic that will heat the soil up.
  3. Water with a mister or sprinkler system that will get the leaves lightly wet and keep the soil cool. I’ve found that greenhouse misters are perfect under a shade cloth. Drip systems have been inadequate for me to keep the leaves happy but maybe others have had luck with them. You can also just use a hose nozzle with a mist setting and get your lettuces wet a couple times a day to help them stay cool. In order to remember to do this I got a $30 timer on my mister so that it goes off every morning, but if you do it yourself, setting a reminder on your phone would definitely help.
  4. Use Sluggo to deter lots of the most common offenders. It will keep away slugs, caterpillars, etc. and it’s organic and poison free so it’s safe around kids and pets. I sprinkle it around the outside of the bed so slugs hit it before they reach the plants. It lasts for a while so you only need to reapply once and a while.
  5. Amend your soil with a simple compost to get it nice and light. When you scatter your lettuce seeds, press them into the surface of the soil with the back of a hoe or shovel, no need to create holes to put them in. I go lazy with it and just scatter seeds all around but you can plant in rows if you like more order. Start with seeds in just a part of your bed then a few weeks later scatter seeds in the next part, then a few weeks later scatter a few more. This will help you get lettuces coming in batches versus all at once and then having nothing for a month.
  6. Herbs are also happy in the lettuce beds, so planting basil, cilantro, parsley, Thai basil, etc. under the shade cover will give you some good herbs too. Don’t do mint though, it will quickly take over your whole bed. I also have some beets in there and some leeks that finally germinated from last season lol. Anything you grow for greens would be happy in these conditions.

Shade 2Finally some photos to show you some of these things in action.

Some of my lettuces in the back have gone to flower because my shade cover didn’t block the afternoon sun so I’ve moved it now and replanted. The front here are buttercrunch lettuce, kale, and beets all coming in.

So there you go- shade cloth, sluggo, compost, mulch, mister spray nozzle or greenhouse mister, lettuce seeds, optional timer.

I hope that makes sense and that you all have other tips to share or are up for giving it a try too! It’s been my favorite part of the garden this year by far!

Happy growing!


Below photo by Alan Pryor, please see his comment below

Garden Pots


Alan Pryor

How I Grow Lettuces and Greens

I have grown lettuces and greens very successfully for decades and my best advice is to not even try to grow them during the late spring and summer months because of the heat stress and bolting problems mentioned by the author. All my lettuces and greens are only grown from mid fall to mid spring along with other cool weather-loving vegetables like carrots, broccoli, and cauliflower. I plant other heat-loving summer crops during the late-spring to mid-fall period (tomatoes, peppers, squashes, cucumbers sweet potatoes, corn etc). During the swing months transitioning between winter and summer and then summer and winter, I grow lots of potatoes that don’t like it either too hot or too cold.

I grow the lettuces, greens, and carrots in pots made from recycled plastic about the size of small wine barrels. They are cheap and they'll last a minimum of 12 -15 years and then you recycle the plastic down at the DWR recycling center. I also use a loose loam soil with lots of compost added to increase the organic content just like the author mentions.

I use drip irrigation (one 0.5 gph emitter per pot) to water as necessary which varies by the weather. I use a regular irrigation controller/timer to control the drip irrigation timing and duration. When it rains or the weather is very cool to cold, I just turn the drip system off - sometimes for weeks at a time.

I use 6-pack sets of lettuce seedlings to start the plants (planting four to six seedling per pot) rather than starting them from seeds because I get much more rapid growth (you can start harvesting within a few weeks) and my success rate from seedlings to harvestable plants is almost 100%. Just make sure you recycle the plastic trays or compost the paper-based trays.

When things get cold during December through February, I simply put large clear plastic garbage bags over the pots to act like a mini-greenhouse. I use a PVC scaffold to hold the plastic upright and hold it down to the pots with a small binder clip on each side. It’s stood up to 40 mph + winds without the plastic tearing off and it also prevents the lettuces from dying even in hard freezes (see the picture for the PVC scaffold).

The plastic additionally keeps my chickens from ravaging the crop. Six hens can eat a pot of fully-grown greens in less than 5 minutes if they get the chance. During the summer and swing months when the plastic bags come off to keep it from getting too hot, I add chicken mesh around the pot edges to keep the girls out (also shown in the picture at end of article above).

Ron O

Thanks for sharing this.

Donna Lemongello

great info, thanks

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