Lettuce may not look like it has much to offer, but this member of the sunflower family can provide good food, ground cover, and fun!
Lettuce is a biennial garden staple that finds its way into most burgers and lays the foundation for nearly every salad ever made. With half of the world’s lettuce crop being grown by China, and numerous cases of E. coli and Salmonella poisoning in bagged salads, lettuce should be one of the first garden plants you try. Fresh lettuce is cheaper, tastier, safer, and far better for the environment than anything that has been shipped from halfway around the planet.
History of lettuce
The ancient Egyptians took advantage of a certain type of weed, whose seeds contained a lot of oil. Over time, those weeds became domesticated and the edible leaves started being used for food and medicine. The Romans gave lettuce its Latin name, Lactuca sativa, for the white latex (lactuca) that drips from cut stems. (Sativa means cultivated.) Being people, we saved seeds from our favorite types to ultimately create nearly 150 varieties of lettuce.
Lettuce generally grows in a crisphead, loose leaf, or romaine form, but there are seven cultivar groups:
Loose leaf and romaine lettuces can be harvested in a cut and grow method, in which outer leaves are removed for consumption and the plant is allowed to continue providing edible leaves for the entire growing period.
How to grow lettuce
Lettuce, like spinach, tends to bolt when it gets really hot outside, so fall, winter, and spring are the best times of year for growing lettuce in the Bay Area. Lettuce can be grown in containers, straw bales, in the ground, or on a window sill. Lettuce prefers sun, but it can grow just fine in shade gardens, too! In spite of its taproot, lettuce does not need a particularly large or deep container to provide you with fresh leaves for your sandwich or salad.
Lettuce seeds are really tiny, so don’t try planting outside on a windy day. (Yep, I learned that one the Hard Way.) Seeds only need to be covered with 1/4” of soil, but they must be kept moist until they germinate. Spacing between plants depends entirely on the variety. Keep planting new seeds every few weeks, in succession, for a continuous harvest.
Once temperatures start rising, your lettuce plants will probably bolt, or go to seed. You can tell this is happening because your docile, rounded lettuce plants will suddenly send up a spike of growth from the center that looks very un-lettuce-like. If you allow this to continue, and I urge you to do so, your lettuce plant will become too bitter to eat, but it will produce flowers and seeds for future generations. I allow my lettuce plants to go to seed and let them fall where they will. (You can also wrap bags around flowering heads to collect seeds.) I now have an attractive foodscape, with all sorts of lettuces growing in all sorts of places. Unless it’s the peak of summer, I can create a fresh salad with a variety of lettuces simply by walking around my backyard!
Lettuce pests & diseases
Aphids are a lettuce plant’s worst enemy, with snails and slugs being a close second. Earwigs, cutworms, weevils, rabbits, and voles will all be attracted to your lettuce plants, and white mold can sometimes be a problem.
Does lettuce really turn brown faster when cut with a knife? No, it doesn’t.
Finally, any packet of lettuce seeds that you buy will have far more seeds than you will be able to use in a growing season. Solution: invite your friends over for a seed-luck. What's a seed-luck? That's when everyone brings a packet of a different type of lettuce (or other) seed, a dessert, and a bottle of wine. You will need to provide little packets or envelopes for guests to (decorate and) use to take their bounty home. A good time is sure to be had by all, and everyone ends up with a bigger variety of plants!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!