Don’t trust buying lettuce anymore? With the recent E. Coli contamination of romaine lettuce in the USA, you might be hesitant to buy lettuce for your salads and sandwiches. This is the perfect time to grow your own lettuce either in the ground or in containers.
With the recent outbreak of E. Coli in romaine lettuce grown in the Yuma, Arizona area, you may feel very unsure about eating romaine lettuce bought in a grocery store, regardless of where it is grown.
Some articles are focusing on what else you could use in place of romaine lettuce, especially for the ever popular Caesar salad. While that may address the current concern, there have been other cases in the past where other varieties of lettuce and greens have been contaminated. So you are always taking a chance when buying pre-packaged, pre-washed lettuce and greens.
Rather than stop eating lettuce and greens altogether, you can grow your own lettuce following these simple steps.
1. Pick your lettuce seeds
Be sure to buy your seeds from a reputable seed supplier. There are so many different variety of lettuces and you may want to try a few varieties you may never have eaten.
Mix and match the colours. There are red lettuces and various shades of green. These can look great together even in a flower bed or a container if you don’t have the room for a dedicated garden bed.
2. Find a good location to grow your lettuce
The good thing about lettuce and other greens is that they do not need lots of full sun. In fact they can even grow in light shade. This makes finding a location much easier especially if you have a small garden with trees and other structures.
As mentioned above you can grow lettuce in flower beds and in containers or in a traditional vegetable bed, be it a raised bed or simply cleared land.
If you are planting in containers, consider placing the container close to your kitchen. Perhaps you have a deck like I have and can place the container on the deck next to the kitchen door. This makes it easy to grab a few lettuce leaves for a sandwich or a salad when preparing lunches for your family.
And you can also grow lettuce in a protected area such as a coldframe, hoop house or greenhouse. Then you can enjoy eating fresh lettuce even in the depths of winter.
3a. Prepare the soil (skip to 3b if you are growing in a container)…
Lettuce does not have deep roots, so you do not need to prepare the soil to a great depth like you would for root vegetables like carrots or brassicas like broccoli that send down a larger root to support the weight of the plant.
Just loosen (cultivate) the top inch or couple of centimetres of soil. Remove any weeds loosened by your cultivation. Rake the surface level. At this point you may want to moisten the soil before planting the lettuce.
3b. …or prepare the container
The container does not have to be too deep. I have actually successfully grown lettuce in a shallow dish-like planter with only about 2 inches (5 centimetres) of soil. If you want to make a complete salad garden container (more on that below) however, you will need a deeper container.
Ensure the container has a drainage hole. If the hole(s) are big, add small pieces of newspaper to cover the holes so soil doesn’t fall through then you fill the container.
Get a good quality sterile potting soil. If you start with a sterile mix you won’t introduce any diseases into the container. Fill up the container, leaving about an inch or 2 centimetres of space at the top.
You can optionally mix in an organic fertilizer that will slowly release it’s nutrients into the soil. But I’ll revisit fertilizing again below.
4. Sow the seeds
Following the spacing outlined on the seed package, sprinkle the seeds on top of the soil. Don’t worry about seed spacing as later you can thin them out and eat the thinnings.
If you are planting in the ground, you may want to consider doing rows for easier weeding and cultivating, so prepare for that by using a rake or other tool’s handle to keep the rows straight. Or you could temporarily string a line down the row as a guide.
5. Cover the seeds
Now use some extra soil and lightly sprinkle it over the lettuce seeds. The trick here is to cover them but only just enough without burying them too deep. If in doubt consult the seed package for depth recommendations. Usually though it is less than 1/4″ or 1/2 cm.
6. Water the seeds in
Now using the finest shower head on your garden hose or a fine rose on a watering can, water the seeds in. Careful that you don’t wash away the seeds!
For the first few days and perhaps even as long as a week make sure to keep the soil surface damp. Otherwise the seeds won’t sprout. You can cover the seeds with some newspaper wetted down or some floating row cover or even plastic sheet. Just remember to remove it when the seeds start sprouting.
7. Thinning out
Once your lettuce seedlings start growing, you may notice that some are too close together. You can harvest the baby lettuce plants that are too crowded and give them a good wash and eat them, roots and all.
8. Caring for your lettuce
Lettuce requires quite a bit of water. As with most vegetables make sure it gets at least 1″ or 2.5 cm of water a week, whether it be from rain or manual watering that you do.
Make sure the water supply you are using is clean. You can use rainwater but there are some precautions you need to take to ensure the water is not tainted by bird’s droppings. This is too involved to explain in this post but will be covered in a future post.
Fertilizing is also key to having a bumper salad crop.
I prefer giving greens a diluted seaweed fertilizer. It is organic and provides nitrogen to the lettuce plants.
You might also find that in hot summers you will need to shade your lettuce patch. Lettuce when it gets too hot will bolt (send up a seed head) and then it turns bitter and not good to eat.
If you used floating row covers as I explain in How to Use Row Covers to Improve Your Crops, then you can use the supports and just drape shade cloth over them as you did with the row cover. Or you can create a frame covered in shadecloth that can be propped up facing the sun.
You also will need to continue planting (maybe stopping during the really hot weeks of summer) to replace the lettuce that you pick or that bolts and goes to seed. So have enough seeds on hand for several sowings.
Once the lettuce leaves are a decent size, you can start harvesting and enjoying the fresh, healthy, safe lettuce in a salad or a sandwich.
Rather than cutting the whole plant, you can harvest just a few leaves from each plant. Then the plant will grow new leaves and you will be able to harvest over several weeks and even months if you are diligent with care and the weather cooperates.
Unless you planted lettuce that produces compact heads such as iceberg. Then you will have to harvest the whole head at one time. However this type of lettuce is not that desirable for taste and for convenience, so I never plant it.
Bring along a collection container if you are harvesting more than a handful of leaves. Usually you can just break off the leaves where they join the stem but in some cases a clean pair of kitchen scissors or a knife works well to avoid damaging the plant.
Usually lettuce leaves are fairly clean unless you have had a rain and soil has splashed up onto the leaves. I know some people who eat the lettuce without washing it. But there is some risk of contamination even with homegrown lettuce, so it is safer to wash your lettuce before eating it.
I don’t recommend using anything other than fresh clean water. There are various produce washes but I question their safety in terms of what is inside of the washes.
Either spray them off with a steady stream of water from your tap (if you have a “shower” setting on your kitchen tap, use that) or fill a bowl or the sink with cold water and agitate them for a minute or so in there.
Remember to look for bugs! Sometimes you might get some slugs, cabbage worms or aphids and these usually wash off easily. If you find a leaf that is heavily infested, don’t harvest it for eating, but still remove it from the plant and dispose of it.
Ideally use a salad spinner to dry off the leaves. Dressing doesn’t stick to wet leaves so this is key.
If you don’t have a salad spinner, just shaking the leaves over the sink will work and you can then pat them down between two kitchen paper towels to dry them further. Or you could do like Mr. Bean and put the lettuce in your sock and swing it around:
Now you can use the lettuce on a sandwich or in a salad. For salads I like to use a simple dressing as you still want to taste the ingredients.
You can make your own or buy a quality organic dressing.
If you grow your own lettuce in a large enough container, you can create what I call a container salad garden.
Add a tomato plant in the middle surrounded by lettuce on the edges. Or perhaps you’d prefer a bell pepper plant. Or some basil or green onion. In a really big container throw in some radishes too.
Then you have a one-stop place to grab most of the ingredients for a salad or sandwich! If you want to read more about this, check out idea #5 in 5 Simple Garden Ideas to Transform Your Outdoor Space
If you have some outdoor space, whether it is a backyard, front yard, balcony or patio you can grow your own lettuce. It is one of the easiest vegetables to grow and with the health scares of the past few years, is worth the small amount of effort and work.
You can share your experiences of growing lettuce for the first time in the comments below. I always love hearing stories of people taking that first step of growing their own food!