Growing Lettuce in Fall
Lettuce and other salad greens are easy to grow and thrive in the cool temperatures of fall. They can be ready to harvest in as little as 30 days from sowing, making them one of the quickest vegetables you can grow. What’s more, lettuce and many of the greens popular in salad mixes flourish when grown in containers, so you can easily grow your own salad even if you do not have space for a full size vegetable garden.
What You Can Grow
Though iceberg may be the lettuce most familiar to many of us, it is not the easiest to grow. Fortunately there are other types of lettuce available that are tasty, beautiful and simple to cultivate. The easiest lettuces are known as loose-leaf or leaf lettuces, because they make open, loose heads. Many selections are available, including ruffled green leaf varieties like ‘Simpson Elite’, red blushed or red leaf selection like ‘Red Sails’ and ‘Prizeleaf’, and deeply lobed types that are commonly referred to as ‘Oak Leaf’ varieties.
There are a couple of ways to grow loose-leaf lettuce. They can be planted as individual plants spaced 8″ apart and allowed to form loose heads for one time harvest, or can be sown thickly with individual plants spaced 2”-3” apart and harvested by clipping. When sown thickly in a container or the soil, these lettuces will form a patch of greens that can be harvested by clipping the leaves with scissors a couple of inches above soil level. Two or three harvests can usually be made from a patch, with the first cutting ready to harvest 30 to 40 days after sowing.
Two other types of lettuce that are easily grown in our area are romaine and butterhead, which is sometimes referred to as bib lettuce. The leaves of romaine lettuce, a staple ingredient in Caesar salad, are thick, crisp, and sweet. They make fairly large heads that are ready to harvest within 60 to 80 days from planting. Young plants should be spaced 10” to 12” apart. Butterhead lettuces produce small, tightly folded heads of tender leaves with a delicate buttery flavor. Butterhead varieties are ready for harvest in 40 to 50 days and should be spaced 6″ – 8″ inches apart.
Other leafy greens that are often used in salads include arugula, also known as rocket, mizuna (Chinese mustard), pac choi, red and green leaf mustard, tatsoi, Swiss chard, and spinach. These greens can be grown individually, but are often available as seed mixes known as mesclun. Mesclun mixes are easy to grow and include a variety of lettuces and salad greens. Some are formulated to be spicy while others include varieties of greens with milder tastes. Mesclun is grown similar to looseleaf lettuce, in a patch that is harvested by clipping leaves, beginning three to four weeks after sowing.
This is also a great time to sow radish, green onion, and carrot seed directly in the garden. For more flavors, include cool season herbs like parsley, cilantro, chervil, and dill in your salad garden. To really brighten up your spring salads, plant edible flowers like quick growing Johnny Jump Ups and colorful pansies. Learn more about edible flowers: https://www.ces.ncsu.edu/hil/hil-8513.html
Salad Garden Tips
Small lettuce plants and salad greens are available this time of year from local garden centers and farmers’ markets. Or you may choose to grow your own from seed. If so, take care to not cover lettuce seed too deeply (sow no more than 1/4” deep) and keep them evenly moist for best results. Also, use fresh seed since lettuce seed do not store well for more than a year.
The key to growing good lettuce and other salad greens is rapid growth. To keep these plants growing quickly, make sure they stay moist and well fertilized. Mixing compost into the soil before planting will add organic matter and nutrients to your soil, but you may also need to add a slow release or organic fertilizer at planting time. Plants can be watered once a week with a liquid fertilizer to encourage rapid growth. Liquid fertilizers include those derived from organic materials such as fish emulsion or seaweed, as well as synthetic products like Miracle-Gro, Peter’s Plant Food, and other brands. Note: The use of brand names in this publication does not imply endorsement of the products or services named or criticism of similar products not mentioned.
Making successive plantings two to three weeks apart will provide a continuous harvest of fresh greens over a long period. Make your last sowing in late September to ensure plants have enough time to mature before hard frost, which typically occurs in late October in Chatham and surrounding counties. Lettuce can tolerate temperatures as low as 30 degrees without damage. The harvest season can be extended by covering plants with floating row cover or an old blanket when frost is predicted.
- Vegetable Planting Calendar for the NC Piedmont: http://content.ces.ncsu.edu/central-north-carolina-planting-calendar-for-annual-vegetables-fruits-and-herbs
- Learn more about growing lettuce and other greens in containers: http://pender.ces.ncsu.edu/2012/09/plant-a-salad-bowl-garden/
- Growing Lettuce, from Clemson Extension: http://www.clemson.edu/extension/hgic/plants/vegetables/crops/hgic1312.html
Check the average first fall freeze date for your location: https://www.wral.com/asset/weather/2009/10/19/6241580/Central_North_Carolina_Fall_Frosts_and_Freezes.pdf
Use Extension Search to find research based information from Cooperative Extension systems across the U.S.
Visit your local Cooperative Extension office to learn more about gardening and landscape care. Go to https://www.ces.ncsu.edu/local-county-center/ to find your county Extension center or post your questions to be answered online via Extension’s ‘Ask an Expert’ widget.
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