Growing Lettuce in Winter

YOU MIGHT THINK I’M STRANGE, but right about Valentine’s Day I start to crave homegrown salad greens. I’m not talking about the store-bought, stale greens that travel thousands of miles to your plate. Blah! I mean the heirloom varieties that are sweet, spicy and maybe a touch peppery. So this year I’m considering growing lettuce in the winter and very early spring.

I think salad greens are best in the early spring or late fall when the cold weather brings out the flavor. I eat them mixed with good olive oil and a little lemon juice. I can just taste them now. The craving is so strong it must be because I have a mid-winter vitamin deficiency of some kind.

It might be worse this year because I’ve been reading Eliot Coleman’s Four-Season Harvest. He talks about growing hearty greens using unheated hoop houses, cold frames and row covers, plus much more on organic gardening. Unfortunately, I took down my little makeshift hoop house just after Thanksgiving. I did it because the arugula, beets and radishes were no longer growing. I didn’t realize you could over-winter greens in a hoop house and they would start growing again about Valentine’s Day. After reading Four-Season Harvest, I know better.

So, with no hoop house, I’m left with two options to satisfy my craving for home grown greens. Option 1: Winter sowing greens outside on top of the literally four feet of snow in my yard. Option 2:  Growing lettuce inside, under the lights.

Option 1: winter sow salad greens

If you are not familiar with winter sowing, it involves germinating seeds and growing plants out of doors during winter using mini-greenhouses made from recyclables. There are no heating devices, no energy wasting light set-ups or expensive seed starting devices.

Most frequently, gardeners winter sow flowers, transplanting them into the ground when the weather turns consistently warm. The seeds are sown in the cold of winter and the seeds decide when it is warm enough to germinate just like in the wild. The mini-greenhouses give the plants a head start similar to starting plants indoors under grow lights.

I’ve looked around the Internet and haven’t found many people winter sowing salad greens. Maybe this is because greens are started pretty early in the spring any way or because it’s hard to grow enough greens in a container. I started salad greens in a cold frame last year. The lettuce and arugula did great. I’m hoping that I can get an even earlier start this year because, with winter sowing, I don’t have to wait for the ground to thaw and dry out.

Option 2: growing lettuce under lights

The idea of growing salad greens in unused space under your seedling starting lights comes from Jeremy at GrowBlog. It’s a novel idea that could save you money if you already have the appropriate potting soil and your grow lights are already turned on.

Jeremy got the idea from his supermarket. In the UK, supermarkets have begun selling living salads –baby leaf salad sold like fresh potted herbs. The supermarket salad grows right up until the day you cut it for the plate. A small tray costs about $3.

Jeremy says that growing salad greens under the lights is much easier than growing them outdoors. There are no weeds or pests. But is it cost effective? If you use leftover potting soil , leftover seeds, recycled pots and the grow lights are already on, there’s no question that it’s cheaper than store-bought greens. 

Which option?

Winter sowing has a couple of advantages over growing salad indoors. First, winter sown plants almost never experience problems with dampening off. Second, winter sown plants don’t take up valuable real estate under the grow lights.

On the other hand, I’m sure that winter sown greens will take much longer to grow to maturity than those planted inside.

Which method do you think I should pick to satisfy my craving for salad greens? Or should I do both? Let me know in the comment section below.

Related articles that might interest you:

1. Book Review: Eliot Coleman’s Four-season Harvest
2. Hoop House Kits
3. Winter Sowing Plus a Cold Frame

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6 Responses to “Growing Lettuce in Winter”

  1. February 13, 2011 at 4:36 pm #

    Hi Bill,
    Here in southern Tasmania, Australia, where the winters are cold and frosty (but at least at my sea level house, there is not snow) I also have thoroughly read Elliot Coleman’s books and love them.
    Now it is late summer here and I am sowing my winter veg in an area that will be covered by a cloche later…. I leave the hoops in but remove the fabric until it gets cold.
    Like you, I have to have salad greens all year round, from my own garden. In Adelaide, South Australia where the climate is Mediterranean, it was easy. I never want to go through winter without salad greens again after living there for 50 years!
    I have learned that each plant needs to be well advanced before winter starts for 2 reasons….. 1. because leaves are like solar panels and in winter plants need more of them if they are to keep growing, not just surviving. and 2. If I want to pick leaves in winter, I need twice as many plants because of the slow re-growth.
    Happy gardening,

  2. February 13, 2011 at 5:25 pm #

    Kate — That’s really good advice to plant more for the winter because everything grows much slower — even under cover. Thanks for stopping by.


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