On the average plot
its cultivation is simple – a row or two
in spring and again in early summer, thinning
when the seedlings are obviously overcrowded and
cutting when the heads are mature. Unfortunately,
treating our favourite salad crop so casually
often leads to disappointment. Pests and diseases
take their toll and the survivors all mature at
the same time – the gap between peak condition
and starting to run to seed in only a week. Buy
a packet of mixed seed containing varieties which
mature at different times in order to avoid a
sudden glut, or preferably sow seed in very short
rows at fortnightly intervals to ensure a regular
succession. Another cause of disappointment is
bolting before maturity – the usual cause
is transplanting at the wrong time or in the wrong
way but there are other causes. Finally, even
with well-formed heads there is a risk of the
leaves being tough and leathery – the usual
reason is failure to grow the crop quickly enough.
You must ensure adequate humus and moisture in
the soil. So lettuces are not quite as easy as
some books claim, but if you pick the right varieties,
follow the instructions and invest in a few cloches
you can enjoy them fresh from the garden nearly
all year round.
Cos; Cabbage: Butterhead; Cabbage: Crisphead;
Expected germination time: 6-12 days
Approximate number per ounce: 20,000
Expected yield from a 10ft row: 10-20 heads
Life expectancy of stored seed: 3 years.
Approximate time between sowing and cutting: 8-14
weeks (Cabbage and Cos varieties); 6-8 weeks (Loose-leaf
Ease of cultivation: Not difficult if you sow
properly and water regularly. Spring lettuce is
· Three basic needs have to be satisfied
to obtain good lettuces. The soil must contain
adequate organic matter, it must not be acid and
it must be kept moist throughout the life of the
· For summer lettuce choose a sunny or
lightly shaded site. Dig the soil and incorporate
compost in autumn or early winter. Shortly before
sowing time rake the surface to produce a fine
tilth and apply a general fertilizer. Apply Bromophos
if soil pests have been a problem in the past.
· Spring lettuce can be grown in a sunny
spot outdoors in mild areas without glass protection,
but it will not succeed in poorly drained or exposed
· Sow very thinly ½ in (1cm) deep
in rows that are 12in (30in) apart. Cover with
· To grow lettuce for transplanting, sow
2 seeds in a small peat pot. Remove weaker seedling
after germination – harden off before transplanting.
For a Summer/Autumn Crop:
Sow outdoors in late March-late July for cutting
in June-October. For an earlier crop (mid May
– early June) sow under glass in early February
and plant out in early March under cloches.
For an Early Winter Crop:
Sow a mildew-resistant variety such as Avondefiance
or Avoncrisp outdoors in early August. Cover with
cloches in late September – close ends with
panes of glass. The crop well be ready for cutting
in November or December.
For a Midwinter Crop:
Heated glass (minimum 45°F (7°C) in winter)
is necessary. Sow seed under glass in September
or October – plant out as soon as the seedlings
are large enough to handle. The lettuce will be
ready for cutting in January-early March. Grow
a forcing variety such as Kloek or Dandie.
For a Spring Crop:
If you live in a mild part of the country, sow
a winter-hardy variety such as Valdor or Winter
Density outdoors in late August-early September.
Thin to 3in (7cm) apart in October – complete
thinnings to 12in (30cm) spacing in early spring.
The crop will be ready in May. For less favoured
areas sow in mid October under cloches –
harvest in April. Use a winter-hardy or a forcing
Looking after the crop
· Thin the seedlings as soon as the first
true leaves appear – avoid overcrowding
at all costs. Water the day before thinning. Continue
thinning at intervals until the plants are 12in
(30cm) apart (9in (23cm) ‘Tom Thumb’
and ‘Little Gem’, 6in (15cm) ‘Salad
· You can try transplanting thinnings in
spring or you can plant shop-bought seedlings
– do not bury the lower leaves. Lettuces
hate to be moved – sow seed whenever you
can where the crop is to grow and mature.
· Put down slug Pellets and protect seedlings
from birds. Hoe regularly. Keep unprotected plants
watered, but the soil under glass should be kept
on the dry side. Ventilate glass-grown lettuce
· Always water in the morning or midday
– watering in the evening will increase
the chance of disease.
· Greenfly can render the crop unusable
– spray with Crop Saver. If grey mould strikes,
treat with carbendazim or Hexyl.
· Lettuce is ready for cutting as soon
as a firm heart has formed. Test by pressing the
top of the plant gently with the back of the hand
– squeezing the heart will damage the tissues.
· If left after this stage the heart will
begin to grow upwards, a sign that it is getting
ready to bolt. You must then cut immediately for
kitchen use or throw it away.
· It is traditional to cut in the morning
when the heads have dew on them. Pull up the whole
plant and cut off the root and lower leaves. Put
the unwanted plant material on the compost heap.
The cos or romaine lettuce is easy to recognise
by its upright growth habit and oblong head. The
leaves are crisp and the flavour is good. They
are generally a little more difficult to grow
than the cabbage types and take longer to mature.
Lobjoit’s Green: One of the old favourite
– a large, self-folding variety. Deep green
and very crisp.
Paris White: Like Lobjoit’s Green, this
variety is popular, large, self-folding and crisp.
The heart, however, is pale green.
Little Gem: A quick-maturing cos lettuce which
is somewhat cabbage-like in appearance. Sow early
for a May or June crop – tie the heads loosely
with wool. Many experts consider it to be the
sweetest lettuce. The heads are small and compact.
Barcarolle: The beauty of the group – pick
this one if you are an exhibitor. Deep green,
tightly folded, tall and weighing up to 1lb (500g).
Winter Density: This variety challenges Little
Gem for the sweetest lettuce title, but its growing
season is different. Sow in August or September
for an April crop.
THE LEAF LETTUCE TECHNIQUE
This technique is designed to provide the maximum
crop in the shortest time – try it if space
is limited. Use a cos variety and sow seeds at
1in (2.5cm) intervals in rows 4in (10cm) apart.
Begin in April and make fortnightly sowings until
the end of May. Do not thin – this technique
produces a block of tightly packed lettuces. Make
the first cut 4-6 weeks after sowing – leaves
the stumps in the ground to produce a second crop
about 6 weeks later.
The butterheads are still the most popular lettuce
group. They are quick-maturing and will generally
tolerate poorer conditions than the other type.
The leaves are soft and smooth-edged – most
are summer varieties but a few are hardy lettuces
which are used to produce a spring crop and several
others are forcing varieties for growing under
All the Year Round: Very popular because it is
suitable for spring, summer and autumn sowing.
Medium-sized, pale green and slow to bolt in dry
Tom Thumb: The favourite for small plots, producing
heads which are tennis ball size. Quick-maturing,
fine-flavoured – grow it as a summer crop.
Avondefiance: The variety to choose if you plan
to sow outdoors between June and August. The dark
green heads are mildew-resistant. Slow to bolt
and resistant to root aphid – no wonder
it is so popular with commercial growers for late
Continuity: The summer lettuce with the red-tinged
leaves. Long-standing and compact – a good
choice for sandy soils.
Dolly: a new variety which will appeal to people
who want to grow a large summer lettuce which
is resistant to mosaic and slow to bolt.
Buttercrunch: The central heart of creamy leaves
is hard and compact – crunchy enough to
make some books list it with the crispheads. An
American variety – try it for a different
Hilde: A popular choice for sowing under glass
and planting out early to produce a May crop.
Suzan: Another variety which can be sown under
glass in February or outdoors in spring to produce
a summer crop. Hearts are large and pale green.
Valdor: One of the three popular winter-hardy
varieties which are suitable for sowing outdoors
in August or September to produce a spring crop.
The solid hearts are dark green.
Imperial Winter: Another winter-hardy lettuce
for sowing in late summer and cutting in May.
An alternative choice to Valdor if you want large
Arctic King: Winter-hardy – the one to choose
if you want a more compact spring lettuce than
Imperial Winter or Valdor.
Kwiek: A popular forcing lettuce for growing under
glass to produce an early winter crop.
Premier: A forcing variety for growing under glass.
Sow in October for cropping in April. The pale
green hearts are large.
May Queen: Another under glass lettuce, recommended
for early sowing under cloches. The leaves are
Kloek: A winter lettuce for cropping in January-March.
A heated greenhouse is necessary – sow seed
in September or October for large, solid hearts
in midwinter when lettuce is scarce.
Dandie: A highly recommended forcing variety for
growing under heated glass to produce a midwinter
The crispheads produce large hearts of curled
and crisp leaves. In general they are more resistant
to bolting than the butterheads, and their popularity
is increasing in Britain. They have always been
the popular group in the U.S. where the Iceberg
type dominates the scene – crispheads with
a solid heart and few outer leaves.
Webb’s Wonderful: The No. 1 crisphead lettuce
in Britain – all the catalogues list this
large-hearted frilly lettuce which succeed even
in hot summers.
Windermere: Another excellent frilly crisphead
for summer cropping – sow outdoors in March-July
or under glass in February. Can be grown in a
cold frame as a spring lettuce – preferred
by some experts to Webb’s Wonderful.
Avoncrisp: Pick this one if you are bothered about
lettuce troubles or if you are sowing for an autumn
crop. It is mildew-resistant, shrugs off root
aphid and is not likely to bolt.
Great Lakes: A large, spreading crisphead. It’s
the original summer crisphead lettuce which came
to use from America.
Iceberg: You can buy the seed of this super-crisp
white-hearted lettuce which is becoming increasingly
popular on the supermarket shelves. Sow in spring
or early summer.
Lakeland: An Iceberg-type of crisphead which has
been bred to be more reliable in Britain than
the original Iceberg variety.
Marmer: Something new – the first crisphead
for growing under glass. Iceberg-type –
sow in October in an unheated greenhouse and cut
These varieties do not produce a heart. The leaves
are curled and are picked like spinach –
a few at a time without cutting the whole plant.
Sow seed in April or May.
Salad Bowl: The basic variety – an endive-like
plant which produces intricately cut and curled
leaves which make any salad look more interesting.
Pick the leaves regularly and the plant will stay
productive for many weeks.
Red Salad Bowl: A must if you’re a Salad
Bowl fan – this variety is grown in the
same way as the standard green variety but the
leaves are reddish-brown.
Outdoor lettuce is an easy crop to grow, but it
is not easy to grow well. You must guard against
soil pests, slugs and birds; in cool, damp weather
the twin major diseases (downy mildew and grey
mould) can be destructive. Above all you must
try to prevent any check to growth. Crops grown
under glass are vulnerable to an even wider range
of plant troubles, but few of them are serious
in a well-grown crop.
Slugs and Snails
Grey Mould (Botrytis)
Lettuce Root Maggot