Lettuce All Year in a Changing Climate

Lettuce bed in May.
Photo Wren Vile

We like to eat lettuce year round, and have put time and energy into finding the varieties and planting dates that work best here in Central Virginia, as well as how to get the best results in each season. Recently I revised our lettuce schedules, partly to take account of hotter weather arriving earlier in the year, and also to even out the harvest dates.

I have frequently written blogposts about growing lettuce. And I have a whole year of Lettuce for the Month posts. See here for the overview, or click on the month you want to know more about. These posts are mainly about our favorite varieties for each time of year.

I have a slideshow Lettuce year round  – It’s at the end of this post.

Back in 2006, I wrote Lettuce: Organic Production in Virginia for VABF. We’re now in Winter Hardiness Zone 7a. Back then we were 6b. Read this publication for details you are hazy on, but see our updated Lettuce Varieties List and Lettuce Log in this post.

Fast-growing Red Salad Bowl lettuce.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Choose appropriate lettuce varieties for each time of year.

Sow several varieties each time to spread the harvest season and the risks of poor germination. I like to use something fast, something slow; at least one red; a romaine, a bibb and a couple of leaf types.

Consider multileaf lettuces too, Salanova and Eazyleaf brands. They are bred for uniformly small leaves, with more texture, loft and flavor than baby mixes and faster harvesting. Transplanted 6″–8″ (15-20 cm) apart they produce 40% more than baby leaf mixes. The full-size plant can be harvested as a head, providing a collection of bite-sized leaves.  Or just one side (or the outer leaves) of the plant can be cut and the plant will regrow for future harvests. Growing multileaf heads takes 55 days, compared to 30 days for baby lettuce

Red Hawk Farm hoophouse densely planted with multileaf lettuces.
Photo Pam Dawling

Our recent changes to our Lettuce Varieties List include switching over from “Early Spring” varieties to “Spring” varieties at the end of February rather than the end of March. This means we only make 3 sowings of the early spring varieties, and we need to stop buying much seed of those varieties! Next year I might even abolish that category and those early varieties to simplify life.

The spring varieties we now sow from February 28 to April 22. We used to sow these until May 15. We’re still making 5 sowings of those, but the dates have moved earlier.

On April 23 we switch over to our Summer varieties, which we make 20 sowings of, until August 14. (Buy lots of seed of those varieties!) We then switch to nine sowings of Fall varieties, until September 7.

Lettuce growing in our greenhouse in November.
Photo Wren Vile

From September 8 to the end of September we use our cold hardy varieties. These 9 sowings include those for the greenhouse and hoophouse, which will feed us all winter. 

Click to access Lettuce-Varieties-pdf.pdf

You’ll need a large screen, a magnifying glass or the ability to expand the image.

We like to grow a balance of leaf lettuce and head lettuces, and, in winter, baby lettuce mix too. We harvest the baby lettuce mix when 3″–4″ (7.5–10 cm) tall, cutting 1” (2.5 cm) above the soil. We harvest leaves from the big lettuces the rest of the time. Baby lettuce mix is very pretty, but I actually prefer the juiciness and crunch of big lettuce.

Beautiful baby lettuce mix in our hoophouse.
photo Wren Vile

Keys to year round lettuce

  • ·         Store seed in a cool, dry, dark, mouse proof place.
  • ·         Grow your lettuce quickly, for high quality and flavor, using good soil preparation and high organic matter.
  • ·         Learn the skills of lettuce germination in all weathers. Minimum soil temperature for germination is 35°F (1.6°C).  Optimum temperature range for germination is 68°F–80°F (20°C–27°C).1/4″–1/2″ (6–10 mm) deep is ideal.  Good light.
  • Watch the temperature – Germination takes 15 days at 41°F (5°C), 7 days at 50°F (10°C), 3 days at 68°F (20°C) and only 2 days at 77°F (25°C). Germination will not occur reliably at temperatures hotter than 86°F (30°C).
  • Keep watching the temperature –  Optimum growing temperatures are 60°F–65°F (15°C–18°C), Some growth occurs whenever the temperature tops 40°F (4.5°C).
  • ·         Choose good locations! We grow lettuce outside from transplants from February to December (harvesting from late April); in a solar-heated greenhouse from September to March (harvesting leaves from November) and in a solar heated hoophouse from October to April (harvesting leaves from November, and whole heads in April). We also sow baby lettuce mix in the hoophouse from October to February, for harvest multiple times from December to April.
  • ·         Use shade cloth on hoops in hot weather
  • ·         Use rowcover in cold weather, or plant in cold frames, greenhouses or hoophouses.

Lettuce under shade cloth.
Photo by Nina Gentle

Grow a consistent lettuce supply using succession crop planting

To have a continuous supply, it is important to plant frequently, at intervals adapted for the time of year. The gap between one sowing and the next gets smaller as the year progresses; the gap between one transplanting and the next does likewise. The number of days to reach transplant size dips to 21 days in the summer, then lengthens as the weather cools and the days get shorter.

We made a Lettuce Succession Crops graph using our records for sowing date and harvest start date. From this we determined the sowing dates to provide us with a fresh harvest (120 heads of lettuce, or equivalent) every single week. We made a Lettuce Log with our planned sowing, transplanting and harvest dates. This is explained in my slideshow Lettuce year round.

Lettuce Succession Crops Graph

Click to access Lettuce-Succession-Crops.pdf

Rouge d’Hiver hardy romaine lettuce.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Recently I fine-tuned this in light of more recent records. In some cases we had been led astray by a spreadsheet date calculator that was based on 30 day months in a 360 day year! Not reality! We also had data showing that transplants were not always ready on the dates we had thought, probably due to a mistake in an earlier year when we were unable to transplant on time, and repeated the delayed date the next year. Most of the tweaking was in early and late spring, and then in August.

Click to access Lettuce-Log.pdf

Tips for growing good quality lettuce

I recommend transplanting lettuce (other than baby lettuce mix) at 4-6 true leaves (3-6 weeks of age). It is worth learning good transplanting skills, so that plants thrive, even if transplanted in mid-summer.

Water enough, with an efficient irrigation system. Water new transplants daily for the first 3 days, then every 4-7 days after that. Lettuce needs a relatively large amount of water throughout its growth.  Deeper weekly waterings equivalent to 1” (25 mm) of rain are better than frequent superficial irrigation – roots will grow deeper, giving the plant greater drought-resistance.

To make best use of space and time, plant lettuces 10-12” (25-30 cm) apart, in a hexagonal pattern. If you plant too close, you are restricting the size of the lettuce. If you plant with more space than needed, you will waste time dealing with more weeds!

Flats of lettuce transplants in our cold frame in April.
Photo Pam Dawling

Transplanting gets a head start on weed control, which is important from planting to a couple of weeks before harvest. Don’t waste time hoeing lettuce you will be harvesting next week. I generally find that if I hoe once, a couple of weeks after transplanting, that is all the weed control I need at the fast-growing time of year. We like the stirrup, or scuffle, hoes, which are safer in the hands of novices than sharp edged hoes, because the blade is in a closed loop.

Some growers use black plastic mulch, but I hate filling the world with single use plastic, so we don’t do that. Some others use landscape fabric with melted holes at the right spacing. I used this for strawberries and liked it. I’m not sure I’d find it worthwhile for fast-growing lettuce. No-till growers can transplant into mulch, first making what we call “nests” at the appropriate measured spacing. It’s tempting to skip the measuring, but if you drift from a 12” (30 cm) spacing to a 15” (38 cm) spacing, you will end up with fewer lettuces!

For those who like to direct sow lettuce, you could prepare the bed, let it rest for a week (watering it), then flame or lightly hoe the surface before sowing to remove a flush of weeds.

Lettuce seedlings for transplanting later. Photo Pam Dawling

Bolting and/or bitterness are more likely with under-watering, long days, mature plants, poor soil, crowding, high temperatures, and vernalization—once the stems are thicker than 1/4″ (6 mm), if plants suffer 2 weeks of temperatures below 50°F (10°C), followed by a rapid warm-up.

Bolting lettuce in July
Photo Alexis Yamashita

Deal promptly with pests and diseases. Aphids, cutworms, slugs, rabbits, groundhogs and deer all like lettuce as much as we do. If you find your lettuces melting down with fungal diseases, you can, of course, commit to better crop rotation. You can also consider solarizing beds for next year’s lettuce. You need a minimum of 6 hot weeks in which to cook the soil-borne disease spores by covering the prepared beds tightly with clear plastic. Old hoophouse plastic is ideal – construction plastic does not have the UV inhibitors that prevent the plastic shattering into shards. 

More resources

Cornell has a 2016 Organic Production and IPM Guide for Lettuce 67 pages of everything you are likely to need, for growing in New York type climates, at least.

Ray Tyler at Rose Creek farm has a Lettuce Masterclass, a step-by-step blueprint to plan, grow, and sell lettuce year-round!

This slideshow is from 2019, before I made the changes I mention above.

Lettuce Year Round 60 mins

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