LETTUCE IS IDEAL for the fall vegetable garden. Not only is it easy to grow, but it also turns out that the flavor of lettuce usually improves when it’s grown during fall’s lower temperatures.
If you’re looking for what to grow in your fall garden, why not consider lettuce? Just keep in mind that in most areas, if you want to grow lettuce in the fall, you have to get started – or at least start planning — in late summer. Here’s a five-step plan to make it easy to get started:
Step #1. Determine which varieties you want to grow.
I’m planning on growing red sails*, black seeded simpson*, romaine* and a mescla blend*. These are the varieties I have left over from the fall. Keep in mind that it’s sometimes difficult to find lettuce seeds in the middle of summer. You may need to purchase them online.
You can calculate your planting dates by using the maturation time for the specific varieties from the information that the seed company provides. For example, the seed packet says black seeded simpson can be eaten at 28 days after planting, but it takes 46 days to fully mature.
Step #2. Determine your average first frost date & calculate when to plant.
If you take the days to maturity and count back from your average first frost date, this will give you your planting date. You can get a good estimate of the date at Victory Seeds page. My average first frost date is September 17. Black seeded simpson takes 46 days to maturity. So my planting date is around the last week in July, which is sooner than I would expect.
If you were planting in the spring, I would suggest succession planting. By this I mean plant a few rows than wait two weeks …plant a few more rows than wait two more weeks … and so on. This will protect you from having too much lettuce all at once. It also spreads out the risk of bad weather like a freak thundershower that washes away your seeds or a heat wave that stifles germination. But since the time you have for growing lettuce may be limited by your first frost date, you MAY want to plant it all at once.
If you are planning to use any kind of season extenders (e.g. hoop houses, row covers, cold frames) consider the temperature boost in your calculations. Obviously, season extenders will allow you to plant later in the summer or maybe even early fall. This likely will improve germination rates and keep lettuce coming until later in the season.
If you really want to know a lot more about growing lettuce in cold weather using season extenders, Eliot Coleman is one of the leading authorities. See my book review of his book at the Winter Harvest Handbook.
Step #3. Prepare the soil.
Lettuce likes moist, well-drained soil. High amounts of organic matter will help keep the soil moist. I add compost, then water to try to get the weed seeds to germinate before planting the lettuce. It’s much easier to get rid of weeds before the lettuce is planted.
The only problem is that at the end of July, I’m typically still growing something else where I’d like to grow lettuce. This year it’s green beans. So preparing the soil will need to wait until the green bean harvest is over.
Step #4. Plant the seeds.
You’ll want to follow the directions for planting from the seed supplier. Varieties differ on the depth of planting.
The biggest barrier to seed germination in late summer and early fall is keeping the soil moist and cool. Lettuce germinates best at a soil temperature between 70 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Soil that is warmer or dryer may make it difficult to get enough germination.
So how do you cool the soil enough to promote germination? One of the best strategies is to shade the area completely until the seeds germinate … and maybe shade it some a while after. Another strategy is to mist cold water during the warmest part of the day. This can help, especially since your other problem will be keeping the soil moist. Some people go so far as to mix the seed in peat and sand and store the seeds in the refrigerator to bring down the temperature just before planting, but this is too much work for me and I’m not sure it will really help. I just hope for cooler weather.
Step #5. Grow and harvest.
As the seedlings grow, you will want to thin the leaf lettuce to six inches apart, romaines to 10 inches and heading varieties to 12 inches. One of the most difficult tasks with growing lettuce is to keep weeds down. Lettuce doesn’t compete well with weeds. Chopped leaves or other organic mulches can help with weeds and conserve soil moisture, too.
The final step is to cut and eat the lettuce. My favorite part! Here’s a recipe for salad dressing that I like:
- 1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard
- 1/4 cup finely chopped scallions
- 2 tablespoons white vinegar
- 1 tablespoon water
- 2 teaspoons honey
- pinch of salt and pepper
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
If you have a favorite fall lettuce, tell us what it is by commenting below.
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