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Growing Lettuce in the Fall Garden

submitted by Sarah Browning, UNL Extension Educator

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There are four main types of lettuce: crisp-head (iceberg), loose leaf, butterhead, and Romaine (cos lettuce). All types can be grown in the fall garden, but look for cultivars with the shortest days from seed to harvest.

Leaf lettuce matures quickly, is easy to grow, and is a good type of lettuce for home gardens. Black-Seeded Simpson, Green or Red Salad Bowl, Red Sails, or Waldman Dark Green mature about 40-50 days from planting.

Butterhead lettuce produces a loose, soft head, with high quality. The inner leaves have an oily or buttery feel. Big Boston, Bibb, and Buttercrunch, an All American winner, are popular varieties. Tom Thumb is a miniature heirloom cultivar, dating back to the 1830s, is very easy to grow, and requires about 70 days from seed to harvest. One head of Tom Thumb is enough for one or two servings, so it's a good choice for succession planting and staggered harvests for a small family.

Crisp-head varieties have dense, firm heads. Strains of Great Lakes, an All American winner, and Imperial mature about 75 days from planting. Other good varieties include Ithaca, Grand Rapids, Summertime or Salinas.

Romaine lettuce develops an elongated head of stiff, upright leaves. Freckles, bright green leaves with dark red speckles, requires 28 days from seed for baby leaves and 55 days for mature leaves. Rosalita requires 70-75 days.

When to Plant

To decide when to plant lettuce, get out your calendar and start counting backward from our normal first frost date, which is October 10th to 15th.

  • On the seed packet, find the number of days required from seeding to harvest
  • Add in the number of days you'll need to harvest, possibly 7-10 days
  • Add in 10-14 days for the "fall factor", which accounts for slowing plant growth due to shorter day length.

The total number of days, counted backward from the first frost date should give you a pretty good estimate of when to seed your lettuce. Lettuce is considered a semi-hardy crop, so it flourishes in the cool days of autumn and survives light frosts down to 30-32° F. You can provide additional protection for an even longer harvest.

Fall Planting

Crisphead and Romaine types are more difficult to grow, and therefore do best if started as transplants in the house. Plants are moved out to the garden at the 4-6 mature leaf stage. Each transplant should have a well-developed root system before being moved outside, so it takes about 5-6 weeks to reach this stage. Be sure the transplants are hardened off before placing them outside, giving them the chance to acclimate to the harsher conditions they will face.

Loose leaf and butterhead lettuce can be direct seeded. A series of plantings 10-15 days apart will supply fresh lettuce for an extended period. Sow lettuce seed thinly in narrow rows spaced 1 ½ to 2 feet apart, or broadcast seed thinly in "wide rows" 1 to 2 feet wide. Cover the seed with ½ inch of soil. Once plants emerge, thin the stand leaving 3 inches between plants.

A cold frame is another good option for growing fall lettuce.

This resource was added August 2013 and appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star Newspaper Sunday edition. For information on reproducing this article or using any photographs or graphics, read the Terms of Use statement

University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension in Lancaster County is your on-line yard and garden educational resource. The information on this Web site is valid for residents of southeastern Nebraska. It may or may not apply in your area. If you live outside southeastern Nebraska, visit your local Extension office

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