Grow Your Own Lettuce: It’s Easy

By Amanda Greene, VCE Southside Master Gardener You may think that lettuce is just an accompaniment to salad dressing, like the store-bought iceberg lettuce that you ate growing up. However, there are many lettuce varieties you can easily grow that are better tasting, sweet, crisp and flavorful. When to Grow: Lettuce likes cool weather. It does not grow well when the temperature is above 800F, plus lettuce gets bitter and will bolt (i.e., flowers and stops growing). Spring is an optimal time to grow lettuce in southside Virginia, but you can grow lettuce in the fall and even winter. Once the temperature is consistently above 400F, you can plant lettuce outside. Lettuce seedlings even tolerate a light to medium frost. Many southside Virginia gardeners wait till March to plant lettuce, but often it will grow just as well when planted in February. Where to Grow: Lettuce will grow in a garden, outdoor containers, and even between blooms in a flower bed. Wherever you plant it, lettuce prefers well-drained, loose soil but tolerates a range of soils. The lettuce yield is best in full sun but can be grown in partial shade especially as the temperature increases. Types of Lettuce: Multiple varieties of lettuce grow in our area of Virginia. The basic types are loose-leaf (matures quickly), butterhead (good flavor and quality), romaine (more tolerant of warm weather), French (midway between butterhead and crisphead), and crisphead also known as iceberg lettuce (requires a long cool season). Lettuce color ranges from light to dark green, red, purple, and variegated. It should be noted that Buttercrunch and Black Seeded Simpson are the best leaf type lettuces for Southside.
Lettuces can be grown in containers. Black Seeded Simpson and Buttercrunch are the best leaf types for Southside. How to Plant: First, loosen your soil with a rake or hoe. Lettuce seeds are small and can be directly planted in your garden or a container. Follow the directions on the seed packet when planting. As a rule of thumb, plant seeds about 1 inch apart in rows that are 12-18 inches apart. You can also lightly broadcast seeds (especially loose-leaf varieties) in a patch. Gently press the seed into the soil; or place the seed on top of the soil and cover lightly with fine compost. Lettuce will start to come up in 7 to 14 days. Once it emerges and plants have 2 to 3 true leaves, thin the lettuce plants to about 6 inches apart for loose-leaf lettuce and 12 inches for crisphead varieties. You can even wash and eat the lettuce you have thinned. Also consider making succession plantings of lettuce every week or two, so you will have a continuous crop throughout the season. Watering: During the first week after planting, water enough to keep the soil moist. Once the lettuce emerges, only water once a week if there is no rain and the soil is dry when you stick you finger down 1 inch into the soil. For the last few years, southside Virginia has had plenty of rain in the spring, so you often do not have to water at all. One of the biggest problems when growing lettuce is over-watering. When to Harvest: Most lettuce varieties will reach maturity in about 60 days. However, loose-leaf varieties can be harvested as soon as 4 weeks after planting. Rather than pulling up the entire plant, pick the outer leaves of the lettuce plant, leaving the center for new growth to continue. Involve the Kids: Lettuce is a great vegetable to teach your children about gardening. Not only can children get involved in a healthy and fun activity, but they may be more willing to try eating something they have grown themselves. With a little planning and preparation, a new or experienced gardener can grow lettuce. Some helpful resources from the Virginia Cooperative Extension include Leafy Green Vegetables ( and Virginia’s Home Garden Vegetable Planting Guide: Recommended Planting Dates ( If you have gardening questions, you can reach an Extension Master Gardener or Extension staff member by sending an email to If you are unable to email, you can call and leave a message at the Halifax Extension Master Gardener Help Desk at (434) 830-3383. Be sure to give us your name, telephone number, and the nature of the call. Someone will get back to you, although it may be from a different telephone number. Keep washing your hands, wear your mask, practice ‘social distancing’ and plant some lettuce in 2021.