Lettuce has made its way into the list of most popular plants for today's home garden. Marie Iannotti, the gardening guide at About.com, says that lettuce has been growing in popularity for the following reasons: "Lettuce is one of those crops whose fresh picked taste simply can't be equaled by anything you can buy at the grocers." Iannotti says that greens are also relatively easy to grow, are high in minerals, vitamins and fiber, and perhaps most importantly for the home gardener, "it's cheaper to grow your own lettuce than to pay premium prices for gourmet greens." With so many benefits, lettuce should certainly make an appearance in your own home garden.
Keep in mind that different types of lettuce may grow best in different seasons and in different weather, so it's quite possible to keep your lettuce supply strong, fresh and rewarding straight through until fall for your harvesting and enjoyment.
The top five types of lettuce for the home garden include:
--Crisphead lettuces. Also known as iceberg lettuce, this variety grows slowly, producing round, pale green heads that are the crunchy lettuces you know. They may not handle hot summer weather well, so they are among the top choices for spring and fall harvesting.
--Butterhead lettuces. Also known as bibb lettuce and Boston lettuce, this type of lettuce features dark green outer leaves and crunchy, lighter-colored hearts. These varieties also do well in spring and fall, and some types even fare well in summer.
--Looseleaf lettuces. This type of lettuce doesn't form a round head, but rather grows in clusters of frilly or smooth leaves. It can be picked in its baby or mature stage. This type of lettuce likes cooler weather, so it is best grown in spring and fall as well. Baby green versions of this lettuce type fare better in hot weather than more mature plants, so plan accordingly.
--Romaine lettuces. The telltale upright heads of romaine lettuces have dark green or reddish outer leaves and crisp white interior leaves. Green romaine lettuces such as Jericho handle heat well. Again, baby greens in this variety can be harvested in less than a month, making this variety a quick plant-to-reward choice.
--Batavian lettuces. This type of lettuce handles heat well and opens to a looser head of bright green leaves.
The key to good lettuce growing is top-quality soil that is kept free of weeds and has good drainage. Begin sowing your lettuce seeds in early spring as soon as the ground thaws and the soil is dry enough to rake smoothly without clumping or mud. The experts at Burpee suggest that your soil be rich in nitrogen and potassium for your lettuce's best performance, so be sure to include fresh compost in your lettuce bed. Lettuce seeds need light to take root, so sprinkle seeds on top of prepared soil and cover them with an extremely thin layer of compost or seed-starting mix. Lettuce is best arranged in rows. Stagger your plantings -- laying seed and planting tray-started seedlings at the same time -- so that your lettuce crops are constantly delivering fresh and ready lettuce throughout the harvesting season. You don't want all of your lettuce to mature at the same time, leaving you with no further lettuce after your first harvest.
The experts at Burpee say: "Lettuce seeds won't germinate in soil that is 80 degrees F or warmer, so there's no sense in sowing directly in the garden in the summer. Instead, start heat-tolerant varieties indoors and move the lettuce seedlings into the garden, preferably under partial shade, after they've developed a few true leaves."
Iannotti suggests a few tips for your lettuce crop care: "If you have fertile soil, you shouldn't need to feed lettuce plants." Lettuce plants need regular watering since they have a shallow root system. Don't keep your lettuce garden bed damp or mulched; doing so invites slugs. You can grow lettuce in containers, as well.
Consult Burpee's online lettuce-growing calendar to help you plan your lettuce-planting schedule according to your zip code. Your garden center experts can also advise you on the types of lettuce that grow best in your region. To help motivate you in tending to your lettuce crops throughout the spring, summer and fall months, a great salad cookbook can provide you with a variety of healthy salad options for your family and for home entertaining.