If you are careful in choosing the seed to plant, you can get a quick crop of homegrown lettuce in the fall. The fall of the year could be the best time to grow leaf lettuce, especially where the spring is short and jumps into hot summer quickly. Lettuce likes it cool. Temperatures between 45 and 65 degrees F. are best. To learn when to plant your leaf lettuce you will need to know when the first frost is expected in your area. Your State University Extension Service can give you that information, either at a website or by phone.
You can start harvesting leaf lettuce a month after planting. It reaches full maturity in about two months. So, for example, if your first frost is expected after October 30 or later, as in parts of New York State you could take a chance on getting a young crop of lettuce if you planted as late as mid-September. Young leaf lettuce will even hold up under light frost. Add a floating row cover on hoops over your lettuce bed, and you can extend your harvest even longer. This will also keep insects off the leaves.
Find your own first frost date and back up 2 months to see when to plant your fall leaf lettuce crop. Use fresh seed that has not been lying around in a hot area. Seed stored in the refrigerator from last spring would be ideal. If the seed has been heated, it probably won’t sprout.
You will get your best stand of lettuce if the nighttime temperatures are below 70 degrees F. down to as low as 45 degrees F. You can scatter seed over a wide garden bed or plant in a row. Lettuce also does very well in containers. A plastic container eight inches wide by eight inches deep is ideal. If the seeds are white, just press them lightly into the finely prepared soil. White Lettuce seeds need light to sprout, so make sure that light can reach the seeds. For other lettuce seeds, cover them with a thin sifting of soil to about ¼ inch deep. Planting the seeds too deep will deter them from germinating as will a dry seedbed. It is important to keep the seedbed damp, which might require you a light sprinkling of the soil daily. Once the lettuce is up and growing, thin the little plants so that they have 4-6 inches between them. You can add these thinnings to your lunch or dinner plates.
Nitrogen is essential for good leafy growth. Use a balanced fertilizer of 5-10-10 or 10-10-10 applied either as a liquid feed or carefully worked in alongside the plants, carefully because lettuce is shallow rooted. Lettuce also needs a good deal of water, by way of faucet or rain, to grow into a good-tasting, crunchy, cutting crop. Work a layer of mulch around the little lettuce plants once they are up. This will help keep the soil surface damp and allow you to cut back on some of your watering chores. If you grow your lettuce patch in a container, choose a plastic pot. Plastic pots won’t need watering as often as clay, which tends to dry out very quickly.
Harvest the lettuce leaves from the outside and allow the inner leaves to continue to grow. Once your season is over and a heavy freeze is forecast, harvest all of the leaves by cutting the lettuce off at the soil line. Enjoy it while you can. Supermarket lettuce just never tastes the same.
Posted September 27, 2013
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