My husband is the worlds pickiest adult eater. He does not eat any type of lettuce other than romaine or iceberg, so that is all we grow. And let me tell you, growing crunchy lettuce is not exactly easy. This may be something you just buy. But there are 1000 seeds in most lettuce packets, which cost about four dollars, so it is certainly worth the trouble if you can get it right.
If this is your first year gardening, don’t even bother.
Here is how I do it.
1. For crunchy lettuce, choose the right variety.
All those beautiful spring mixes and leaf lettuces, in different shades of purple and green? They are lovely, but they will never be crunchy. They are a whole different animal. For crunch, pick a romaine, iceberg, or butter crunch. Right now I am growing “Paris” romaine and “Igloo” iceberg.
And think of when you want them, and how many. You do not want dozens maturing at once (unless there is a large Caesar salad party planned, in which case you are under a lot of pressure). Start a few seeds every week or two.
2. Start seeds indoors.
I prefer to start all seeds in seed trays if they are ones that will transplant well. The seeds are very tiny and they come up quickly in the fine seed starting mix, much easier than they would in heavier garden soil. There is no thinning or going out to the garden to keep the soil moist until they germinate. Starting them inside just keeps things more in your control.
I start them inside, on a heat mat. Once they have germinated, I move them outside almost immediately. I am not paying to run a grow light for lettuce. Also this way they get plenty of sun and harden off naturally.
(If you have fine soil that makes a nice seedbed, and can grow lettuce all through the summer and therefore can plant it when the soil is warm, then you might as well direct sow. But we have heavy soil and weather that heats up quickly once summer hits.)
3. Plant them in the right spot.
Lettuce prefers sun but cool weather, so I am only able to grow it in the spring and fall.
Give each lettuce plant at least one square foot. (Bring a ruler to the garden, it is hard to judge.) Since they are relatively quick to mature and the whole plant is pulled at the end, they are a nice crop to fill in empty spaces that will be taken up later.
They like plenty of water. They are watered with the drip line and I also water them with the watering can whenever I have it out. There is no crunch without water!
4. Wait for maturity: the heart needs to develop if you are growing crunchy lettuce.
After a few days of settling in, your transplants will start to grow. New leaves will appear almost daily. They will look soft, floppy, and you will be sad. Don’t be sad! They are not what you will eat, anymore than you would eat the green branches of a tomato plant. Be patient.
60 to 90 days later (check your seed packet), it will be time. There will be a true “heart” in the center of the plant. It should be firm when you squeeze it. This is the most important step in growing crunchy lettuce.
(See the distinctive heart in the center? This one is ready.)
(This one too, an iceberg with a firm round heart.)
5. Harvest correctly, to preserve the lettuce’s crunch.
It must be done in the morning, while it is still dewy. Pull the whole lettuce plant.
There will be a lot of extra leaves on the outside that you don’t want. Only the heart is crunchy. No one in my family eats the softer, greener leaves. Not even thechickens. I so I compost them, and save only the heart.
(Yucky stuff on the left, heart on the right. The lighting is weird because I did this at five in the morning!)
The hearts go right in the fridge, wrapped in a slightly damp tea towel.
I am not going to tell you that you will be amazed by the taste and quality. It tastes pretty much like lettuce from the store, just very fresh. And that, my friends, is a victory.
Does this sound like too much work?
See this post on growing a practical and simple vegetable garden your first year.
Looking for a good source for your lettuce seeds?
Johnny’s Selected Seeds is my favorite. Their variety “Sparx” has does very well for me. DO NOT buy anything labeled “leaf lettuce” if growing crunchy lettuce is the goal.