It’s not even summer yet, but I’ve already been harvesting lots of lettuce, both from my backyard garden and from containers on my balcony. Lettuce is a pretty easy “beginner” vegetable to grow in either garden beds or in pots – but in some ways it is actually more practical to grow in containers. The lettuce you harvest is cleaner, and pests are less of a problem (especially snails and slugs).
Here’s how I grow my lettuce.
You can buy lettuce as seedlings, but I find that to be really cost-ineffective. You pay $3 or $4 for six seedlings (often already too big for their container, which may keep them from reaching full size).
Or you can pay the same for a pack of hundreds of lettuce seeds that will be good for three to five years! It’s an easy choice for me: lettuce is one veggie that is better to start from seed.
People seem to associate lettuce with summer, but it is actually more of a cool season crop, for spring and early summer. Lettuce seedlings can handle temperatures even a couple degrees below freezing, so I recommend starting them in containers outside rather than inside – even early in the season.
When growing for a home garden, you don’t want dozens of lettuces maturing at once. A benefit of growing from seed is that you can stagger your harvest.
If you seed four or six plants every week or two, you can have them maturing a few at a time, supplying yourself with a couple of lettuces per week throughout the entire spring and summer.
Sow your seeds very shallow. If the weather is still cool, leave the seed tray out where it gets sun, and make sure the soil stays damp. If you are seeding later in the season when it’s getting warmer, you’re better to put the pot in the shade or semi-shade. You may have to water it several times a day for the first week or so. If you let the top layer of the soil dry out before the plants have formed a deeper root, your sprout will die before it even breaks the ground surface.
I prefer to transplant the seedlings when they are very small (much smaller than the size they are usually sold at). This is because the roots are tiny at that stage, and therefore you are less likely to damage them. I just use a teaspoon for the little guys.
Sometimes seedlings flop over when first transplanted (not just lettuces – kales and broccolis do this too). If that happens, just place a little rock or stick to gently prop the seedling up. In a few days, once it has spread its roots out, it will be able to hold itself up.
Lettuces do not do well in the hot sun. They may dry out so their leaves go limp, getting damaged rather than growing. Or the heat may make the plants bolt – sending up a flower stalk before they produce much in the way of leaves.
So place your lettuce pot either in a part of your deck or patio that gets bright indirect light, or that gets only partial sun. My pots do really well on the south side of the balcony where they are semi-shaded by the slats that support the railing.
Mature lettuces take up a lot of space. A whole living lettuce plant, with its spread-out lower leaves, is actually a lot wider than the cleaned-up head you would buy in a store. Ideally the plants should be well over a foot, or 30 cm, apart (this varies a bit with the type of lettuce). Therefore, growing them in square or round containers takes up a lot of floor space (too much!) – so I grow mine in long narrow containers, like those designed for flowers on a windowsill.
Lettuce does not need a lot of room for its roots, so here is a little trick: sow the seedlings in a narrow container, much closer together than the spacing they will eventually need – with the plan of staggering your harvest. These photos show two ways that I can grow five lettuces in containers that are really only big enough for three mature lettuces.
In one version (immediately above), I use two different ages of seedlings. Lettuces #2 and #4 are bigger, older plants which will mature earlier. Just as the pot gets crowded, I will harvest those two, leaving more room for lettuces #1, #3 and #5 (photo below: #4 was lunch today and yesterday, and #2 will be tomorrow!).
In the other version (photos further up this post, of the red lettuces), all five transplants are the same age and size, but I will eat #2 and #4 earlier, a bit before they are full size, leaving room for the other three to grow to maturity.
When watering your lettuces, aim for the soil and not the leaves. Otherwise the leaves may channel all the water over the sides of the pot. You think you have watered, but your lettuce is drying up! If you are not sure whether the water is soaking in, try picking up the container: if it is well watered, it should feel heavy.
<– First harvest from this pot!
Keep a close eye on the lettuces as they get bigger, watching for any signs of bolting. A lettuce that is ready to eat should be large, but should not have any stem. Look down at the base of the leaves: if there is any sign of a stem developing, it means your lettuce is about to bolt. Pick it right away!
Even if you can’t eat it that day, at this stage it is better off in your fridge than on the plant. Bolting lettuce loses the leaf volume – and even worse, your sweet tender home-grown lettuce leaves become bitter.
Lettuce is an easy and tasty vegetable to grow in pots or other containers on your patio or balcony. With two pots going and a bit of thought about how to stagger your plantings, you can have fresh garden lettuce on your doorstep for many months of the year.
Are you working on growing your own vegetables – whether in containers or in a garden bed? Contact me for updates and gardening tips, as well as to be first to hear about special deals for The Food Garden series of books. Volume 1, the veggie gardening “bible,” is about to be released!