How to Grow Organic Lettuce
Gardening is one of my favorite hobbies. Hopefully, you enjoy it as well. Nothing is quite as tasty as fresh strawberries or newly cut lettuce from the garden. And few things are easier to grow or to grow organically. There are two ways that I use to grow my lettuce organically.
- Seed Starting
- Direct Sow
But, before we get into the how let's take a look at lettuce and the organic principles of gardening briefly. Lettuces are a leafy green and are considered a 'cole crop' along with plants like spinach, broccoli and kale. These plants are cool weather plants, growing well in spring and fall but they struggle when the temperature get hot. This means, with the exception of a few varieties of 'summer lettuces' that you can have two crops, one in spring and one in fall. There are two basic types of lettuces, head lettuce and 'cut and come again' lettuces. Head lettuces do as you expect and grow into heads. These varieties include iceberg and romaine. 'Cut and come again' lettuces allow to harvest the leaves by cutting them leaving about an inch of leaves, and like grass they'll grow back up. This allows you the more harvests throughout the season. These varieties include, some romaines, loose leaf green and reds, lolla rossa and others.
When you, or if you already have, decided to organic garden you have made the decision to not use chemical based pesticides or fertilizers, opting instead for more natural ways of tending to plants. This can mean more work initially but also can mean less chemicals in your diet and if you do most of the work yourself, a cheaper way of gardening. Well with that let's talk about how.
You can start seeds indoors a couple of weeks prior to the last frost. This will vary from location to location. Check the USDA Hardiness Zones for your specific details.
Here's what you'll need:
- Seed starting tray, old egg carton or anything else that can old soil mix but will also drain
- Seed starting mix: Make sure it is organic or even better some of your own compost
- Your seeds (I recommend a lettuce mix, especially cut and come again varieties and if at all possible organic and open pollinating varieties so that you can save the seeds for the next crop)
- Fill the seed starting tray with your mix. I generally leave it a little less than full and I'll explain why in a moment.
- Place two or three seeds in each divided seed cell. You want just a couple in there to ensure germination but to make sure that the sprouts do not end up competing for nutrients prior to being planted out.
- Now if you filled your seed trays up you would have had to poke a small divot into each cell and the cover the divot over with more mix causing some compaction below the seed. However, if you filled it a little less than full like I suggested above you can simply sprinkle a little more mix over top of the seeds to cover them.
- Water thoroughly and place near a south facing window in a warm room to promote germination.
- When two true leaves (not the whispy leaves that first show up but two lettuce looking leaves) appear you can transfer them to the garden. Just be sure to water well.
Because lettuce is a cole crop it can actually be sown into the ground prior to the last frost date and, generally speaking, be ok. Direct sowing can be a little easier then starting the seeds first but does mean that you will have to wait a little longer to enjoy your lettuce, since you're not giving it a head start inside.
What you'll need:
- A garden trowel or hoe
- Seed mix
- Refer to the package of seeds for a good estimate of planting outside for your location. Hardiness zones range from 1 to 13 and some states have stretch through multiple zones.
- Because lettuce can be planted fairly close together and their seeds are so small, I recommend creating several small ditches or rows about 1/4 to 1/2" deep with the trowel or hoe.
- Lightly sprinkle the seeds in along the length of the ditches and cover them over again.
- Finally water them thoroughly and keep the moisture in check.
General Notes and Tips for Organic Lettuce
There are a couple of tips that you may find helpful in growing organically and growing lettuce organically.
- The key to organic growing is good soil fertility. Be sure to add animal manure, compost or organic fertilizers into the soil beforehand.
- A good compost tea or fertilizer added occasionally will also boost growth
- Extend the growing seasons by growing your lettuce in a small hoop house, cold frames, or under cloches.
- You can use the top of a clear 2 liter soda bottle as a cloche (somewhat like a mini greenhouse)
- Water, water, water
- Warm or hot weather will cause wilting and bolting. Harvest early in the morning or late in thee evening when the leaves are not wilted and pinching off any forming flower heads will extend the growth of the lettuce
- When the weather does start to get warm allow some of the plants to flower. Save these seeds or let the plants self seed in the garden for a good start on a fall crop.
- Finally, aphids are a pest of lettuce. If you have grown your own lettuce before you have no doubt noticed those little guys among the leaves as you've prepared your salads. A sharp blast from a hose just prior to harvesting is a good way to remove these bugs before harvest. Furthermore, attracting ladybugs or buying some is a great way to organically control these pests. Ladybugs are fierce predators!!!