Grow lettuces in full sun on moisture-retentive soil. Early and late sowings may need protection against cold, using cloches, plastic tunnels or horticultural fleece. All these types of protection will be available at garden centres.
There are several different types of hearting lettuces:
- Butterhead lettuces have an open habit, are quick-maturing and tolerate poorer growing conditions.
- Cos types have an upright growth habit and oblong head.
- Crisphead types produce large hearts of curled and crisp leaves and are more resistant to bolting (going to seed prematurely); this group includes iceberg lettuces.
Sow a short row every fortnight to ensure continuity of cropping. Sow seed thinly 13mm (1/2in) deep in rows 30cm (12in) apart.
You could also grow lettuces in growbags or containers – follow the sowing timings and spacings as below.
Time of sowing depends on when the crop is wanted:
- For a summer/autumn crop: sow outdoors from late March to late July. For an even earlier crop, sow indoors in early February in seed trays and plant out in early March under cloches or plastic tunnels.
- For an early winter crop: sow outdoors in early August and cover the plants with closed cloches in late September.
- For a spring crop: sow a cultivar such as 'Winter Density' in September/October either in a cold greenhouse or outside under cloches in mild areas.
High soil temperatures in summer can prevent some cultivars from germinating. Sow in the evening, water with cold water and provide some shade to keep temperatures down.
Thin seedlings as soon as the first true leaves appear and continue until the plants are 30cm (12in) apart. The seedlings you thin out can be washed and eaten too.
Water when the soil is dry; the best time to water is in the early morning.
Early in the year sparrows can be a problem as they find young lettuce plants irresistible. Protect with fleece, chicken wire or similar.
Lettuce is ready to cut when a firm heart has formed. Harvest lettuces by cutting rather than pulling.
‘Little Gem’ AGM: This is a Cos lettuce with small solid heads and produces a sweet, crisp heart. It has good resistance to root aphid.
‘Set’ AGM: A crisphead lettuce, this is easy to grow and produces large, solid hearts with crisp green leaves.
‘Tom Thumb’: A small butterhead lettuce perfect for growing in small spaces. It matures early and has soft leaves with a mild taste.
‘Nymans’ AGM: A Cos lettuce with deep read outer leaves and a rich green heart.
Slugs and snails: These feed on the young seedlings. You’ll see the tell-tale slime trail of slugs and snails on the soil around your crop, as well as on the leaves.
Remedy: There are many ways to control slugs and snails, including beer traps, sawdust or eggshell barriers and copper tape. Experiment, as you may find some more successful than others. Traditional slug pellets contain metaldehyde, which can harm other wildlife, pets and young children if eaten in quantity. Slug pellets of powders based on aluminium sulphate or ferric phosphate are less toxic.
Find out more about slugs
Find out more about snails
Lettuce root aphid: Older plants suddenly wilt and die back, usually in mid- to late sunmmer. You may not see the aphids, as they attack the roots, not leaves, but you may see lots of ants around the plants, as they feed on the honeydew that the aphids produce.
Remedy: The damage is worse in dry conditions, so keep lettuce well-watered. If you suspect root aphid and only have a few lettuces, you can pull them up, wash off the aphids and replant in fresh compost. Otherwise, there is not much you can do, except pull up any affected plants and destroy them. Prevention is the best cure, so cover lettuces with insect-proof mesh (like Enviromesh) from June until August as this will prevent aphids getting to the roots. Some lettuces are resistant to root aphid.
Grey mould: This is a problem in cold, damp summers. You will see a fuzzy, grey mould growing on the leaves.
Remedy: Hygiene is very important in preventing the spread of grey mould. If you see grey mould, remove the infected material and destroy. Grey mould is encouraged by overcrowding, so make sure you plant your lettuces at the appropriate distance apart. No fungicides are approved for use by amateur gardeners against grey mould. Products containing plant and fish oil blends may be used, but are unlikely to have much impact.
Get more advice on grey mould
A variety of salad leaves are used in this Salad of leaves and pancetta while cool lettuce leaves balance the spiciness of the meatballs in these Spiced pork patties in lettuce leaves.
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