Home gardening tips: How to plant, harvest and store lettuce
07/27/2021 / By Rose Lidell / Comments
Home gardening tips: How to plant, harvest and store lettuce

Leaf lettuce is perfect for refreshings salads, but did you that you don’t have to buy lettuce from the store? With a bit of time and effort, you can grow your own lettuce at home.

Lettuce is great for gardening beginners because it grows for many weeks in spring and fall when the weather is mild. You can tuck leaf lettuce between and under taller vegetables, and it grows well even in a container garden.

Tips for planting lettuce

Lettuce grows fastest in full sun, but it’s one of the few vegetables that can tolerate some shade. A spring crop will usually last longer if shaded from the afternoon sun as the season gets warmer.

If you live in the city, you can still grow lots of lettuce in a container.

When growing veggies for salads, mix lettuce with other taller plants, like tomatoes, in the spring.

Soil requirements

Lettuce needs fertile, well-drained, moist soil with a lot of rich, organic matter and a pH between 6.0 and 7.0. If you’re not sure about soil pH, test your garden soil with a purchased kit.

Another option is to get a soil test through your regional Cooperative Extension office. Fertilize and apply lime according to test recommendations.

If you don’t do a soil test, the soil may not be ideal for growing vegetables. You may need to add nitrogen-rich amendments like blood meal, cottonseed meal, or composted manure to the top few inches of your native soil.

Fertilizer and potting mix

If you’re growing lettuce in pots, you can give the roots their ideal growing environment by filling the containers with a premium quality potting mix. Leaf lettuce needs nitrogen to grow tender, new leaves quickly and you need to fertilize throughout the growing season.

Spacing lettuce 

You can space lettuce closer together or further apart depending on how large you want the plants to grow since lettuce plants adapt to their spacing. For larger plants, space at the maximum distance as indicated on the seed packet instructions.

There are no definite rules for spacing, but some varieties grow well with spacing that’s between six to 18 inches depending on the type, so check the seed packet.

Generally, lettuce should be spaced far enough apart so it can grow to full size. If you want to harvest leaves continuously before they reach their full size you can also plant lettuce much closer together.

Don’t stress over spacing too much because plants adapt to their spacing.

Planting lettuce in spring and fall

During spring, you need to start setting out lettuce plants at least one month before the last frost.

Lettuce grows best within 45 to about 80 F. Remember that hot weather makes lettuce bitter while extreme cold freezes it. Well-rooted Bibb types like Buttercrunch can tolerate frost to a certain extent.

When planting lettuce during fall, start at least four to eight weeks before the first frost. If you are using a cold frame or row cover, you can grow lettuce through the winter.

To grow lettuce with tender, succulent leaves, water regularly during dry weather.

Use mulch to keep the soil cool and moist. Mulch will also help keep your crops weed-free.

Protecting your crops from pests

Lettuce is easy to grow, but you must stay vigilant to protect it from common pests like aphids, caterpillars, slugs and snails.


Aphids are the most common lettuce pests and they target tender leaves. Check for aphids that may hide on the undersides and down in the crown of the plants.

Aphids are bad for leaf lettuce because of four reasons:

  1. Aphids suck the water and nutrients from plant tissue, which makes lettuce leaves curl can kill young plants.
  2. Aphids are often parasitized and the dead aphids don’t rinse off the leaves.
  3. Aphids act as virus vectors that can spread diseases like lettuce mosaic.
  4. Aphids deposit significant amounts of honeydew on the leaves, which can cause the growth of sooty mold.

You can control aphids naturally by introducing or encouraging natural predators like lady beetles or birds. Alternatively, you can use horticultural soap or neem oil to keep your plants safe from aphids.


Caterpillars are the most damaging group of insect pests that attack lettuce. This includes different varieties of armyworm, cabbage looper, corn earworm and cutworm.

Each type of caterpillar has a different feeding habit with different life cycles foraging on different areas of lettuce, but all of them will consume lettuce and destroy your crops by leaving holes and holey, mangled foliage.

Here are several ways to keep caterpillars out of your home garden:

  • Remove the caterpillars from your plants and drop them into a bucket filled with soapy water. Check your crops for any eggs and hiding caterpillars. You can remove some caterpillar eggs with a flush of water, but others may require other methods like neem oil or homemade insecticide.
  • Leave cardboard or tin foil at the base of your plants to repel caterpillars.
  • Keep the soil around your plants free from debris where caterpillar eggs might hide.

Slugs and snails

Slugs and snails will target tender, young green lettuce. They can easily decimate seedlings.

Slugs and snails will hide during the day among weeds, plant debris, stones, or anything close to the ground. This is why you need to maintain a clean area surrounding the lettuce shoots.

Get rid of slugs and snails by growing plants they avoid like begonias, fuchsias, geraniums, lavender, nasturtiums, rosemary and sage. Grow these plants near or among lettuce rows.

Alternatively, you can use traps, organic bait and barriers to remove snails and slugs. Water the area a bit to encourage the slugs and snails to come out, then bait in the afternoon or early evening.

If you don’t mind using your hands, you can simply hand pluck slugs and snails at about two hours after dark with a flashlight.

Harvesting and storing lettuce

There are two ways to harvest leaf lettuce: From the outside of the plant, leaving the central bud to grow more leaves continuously, or cutting the entire plant at the base.

Leaf lettuce is ready to eat at size, but the baby leaves are best for tender salads. Romaine lettuce forms mid-ribs before harvest and at full size, it forms an upright leafy clump.

Meanwhile, Bibb types like Buttercrunch form a loose head that you can harvest anytime. For the classic Bibb rosette, wait until the lettuce is nearly full size at about six to eight inches in diameter then cut it at the soil line.

You can do the same for heading iceberg types but in warm climates where head lettuce doesn’t make a firm head, you can harvest it like leaf lettuce and remove leaves as they get large enough to eat.

Lettuce tastes sweetest in cool weather, making it a perfect fall crop. As the weather gets warm, plants will go to seed where they will start to stretch and send out a seed stalk or start bolting, making the leaves bitter.

Once lettuce starts bolting, harvest the lettuce immediately and refrigerate it to help get rid of some of the bitterness.

Check your soil quality and monitor your crops regularly for weeds or pests. Leaf lettuce is easy to grow if you know how to plant, harvest and store it for tasty salads.



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