A lot of gardening books tell us lettuce and salad leaves are the easiest things to grow. I think they recommend them for beginners as there is nothing like visible growth to encourage new gardeners. For some growing lettuces is indeed simplicity itself. Not for me! Kale, chard and beetroot have always grown abundantly in my garden but it has taken me five years to get satisfactory results with lettuce.
The first two years were a disaster. In my first year lettuce succumbed to slugs and snails and what little survived went to seed as soon as I turned my back, and in 2012 nothing germinated in the dark wet summer. By year three I harvested a few rather tasty Lollo Rosso lettuces but hardly an abundant crop, and last year I didn’t even bother. This grim account is not intended to put anybody off. Instead, it is a reminder that in gardening there are no blue prints. What works for one gardener, doesn’t necessarily work for another.
It is definitely worth persevering with lettuce (and most crops) though, as this year I am harvesting an abundance of leaves. Here’s a list of some of the things that seem to make a difference. It’s not an exhaustive how-to list but rather some observations that expand or vary the one-size fits all advice in books.
Start seeds off indoors
This advice is particularly relevant for tiny plot holders as it gives us more control over germination conditions and allows us to maximise outdoor space for strong healthy plants. I typically sow lettuce seeds in modules (3-4 seeds per module) filled with fresh peat-free compost, water them well and cover them with a cloche lid to keep the soil moist. Once the seeds have germinated I remove the lid. (If you don’t have a propagator tray with a cloche-like lid, you can use a pot and cover it with a clear plastic bag or some cling film held in place with an elastic band. I normally avoid plastic bags but I occasionally make an exception when I’m sowing a lot of seeds.)
I don’t plant lettuces out until they are at least two inches tall and have several sets of leaves because stronger plants are better able to deal with slug and snail attacks. As these pests will massacre a lettuce crop, I have resorted to strategic positioning thanks to a tip from my friend @rooftopvegplot. I have dotted violets around my raised beds and plant the lettuces between them, as it seems that slugs and snails prefer sweet sugary violets to dull lettuces… Underplanting is another positioning tactic that seems to improve a lettuce’s lifespan. By planting them under my roses, they enjoy a little shade which stops them bolting and going to seed too quickly. In the process, they also act as a rather lovely ground cover.
Most gardener writers recommend sowing successive batches to harvest lettuce year round. There is a lot of truth in this but it takes some discipline and planning. I have been working on the basis of sowing new seeds a couple of weeks after I plant out my seedlings, about at the point when I start to pick the leaves. Some people recommend sowing more as soon as you plant a batch out but, in my experience, it depends on harvesting habits.
Lettuces run to seed quickly in the heat, at which point they become bitter and stop producing, so it is important to keep harvesting the leaves. As I’m just feeding two mouths, I treat lettuces as a cut-and-come crop for a few weeks, picking a few outer leaves off each head. Then when growth becomes less vigorous, I harvest the remainder of the lettuce to free up space for the next crop.
I have discovered that regular picking depends heavily on growing things we like to eat. This may sound obvious but as growing our own offers much more variety than we get in shops, it is worth checking seed catalogues for flavoursome varieties rather than opting for the recommended “Beginner” lettuce. This year I am growing four varieties: Flashy Butter Oak (a pretty variegated loose leaf lettuce), a compact heirloom Little Gem, Mizuna (a spicy fine Japanese lettuce leaf) and familiar Wild Rocket. As Mr M is not the biggest fan of salad leaves, a variety allows me to avoid any sense of monotony. It also helps me stretch the season. I’ll add Rouge d’Hiver and Mibuna to Mizuna from September onwards for winter lettuce.
As I said, this is by no means an exhaustive list of suggestions, just observations based on getting to know my own garden, habits and tastes, all of which shape me as a gardener. Please do share your experiences of growing edibles in the comments. I would love to hear what does and doesn’t work for you. And of course, tactics for combating legions of slugs and snails are always welcome!
I order most of my vegetable seeds from Chiltern Seeds and The Real Seed Company, both of which offer many heritage/heirloom varieties. The Real Seed Company is on a mission to get us to rediscover and replenish stocks of older varieties and actively encourages its customers to harvest seeds to help build up stocks. Needless to say, this is the type of business I like to support.
If you have a tiny garden/patio/balcony, look out for seed swaps in your area or consider clubbing together with friends if you want a variety of lettuce (or other leafy vegetables) but don’t want to be stuck with 100s of seeds.