Growing lettuce in your Louisiana fall garden
Story and Photos by A.J. Heinsz-Bailey
As fall approaches both the temperature and the insect populations are decreasing, making it a great time to plant lettuce. Lettuce is easy to grow and is available in a wide variety of colors, shapes, and tastes. These are qualities that make lettuce the most popular salad vegetable in the world – the average American eats around 30 pounds of lettuce each year. Lettuce (Lactuca sativa) has a long history. It has been eaten since the fourth century BC. We use it in salads, on sandwiches, and as a garnish.
The four major types of lettuce grown in Louisiana are butterhead, crisphead, cos (Romaine), and loose-leaf. Butterhead types have soft, slightly crinkled leaves that are in a loose head. ‘Bibb’ and ‘Buttercrunch’ are examples. Crisphead, known as iceberg lettuce, is easy to find in grocery stores. The leaves are arranged in a tight head that is pale in color. Cos or Romaine lettuce is upright with long slender leaves. Try ‘Flashy Trout Back’, ‘Bambi’, or ‘Freckles’. These are varieties that can be used in the flower garden as well as the salad bowl. Loose-leaf lettuce is a non-heading form of lettuce with flat or frilled leaves that can be picked continuously throughout the growing season. This type is perishable so it is not usually available in stores. Farmers’ markets and homegrown are the best sources. Leaf lettuces grow well in our area and there are many varieties. ‘Defender’, ‘Jericho’, ‘Rhazes’, ‘Drunken Woman’, and ‘Tango’ are just a few varieties that are available by mail order.
Lettuce enjoys being planted in a site that receives full sun. Lettuce will tolerate some shade if full sun is not available. Lettuce seed germinates best in moderate to cool temperatures with soil temperatures around 75 F. Lettuce planting dates extend from September through March in Louisiana. Germination takes place in four to 15 days. Plant lettuce seeds into well-prepared beds that have been amended with lots of organic matter, such as compost or rotted herbivore manure. Lettuce seeds require light for germination. Sow them on top of the soil and water them in. Thin growing plants 6-11 inches apart after two weeks. You can extend your harvest by succession plantings every two to three weeks. Use floating row covers or fleece grow tunnels to protect your crop from frost, bugs, and/or rabbits. Purchased transplants can be used to start the salad garden or as a border on a flowerbed. Garden centers are now offering several varieties of leaf lettuces as transplants or seeds.
Lettuce seedlings or transplants will do best if you maintain consistent soil moisture and moderate fertilization. 8-8-8 can be used to sidedress plants during the growing season. Lightly cultivate it into the soil surface and water it in well. Soluble fertilizers can also be used for this purpose. Lettuce is shallow rooted so avoid deep cultivation. Remove weeds while they are small to prevent disturbing the lettuce plants’ roots. Light, shallow cultivation is best. You can mulch the plants as they get bigger. This will help prevent soil from splashing onto the leaves during rain or irrigation, thus preventing many soil-borne diseases.
Lettuce doesn’t suffer as many problems as other garden vegetables. Aphids, slugs, and snails can be problems at times but usually do not require treatment. If needed, treat worm problems with Bt, spinosad, and carbaryl products. Insecticidal soaps will eliminate aphids. Most modern varieties have some disease resistance built in, but during wet periods some fungal problems may show up. Among them are downy mildew and bottom rot. Properly spaced plants with good air movement and the use of drip irrigation will help prevent fungal problems.
Lettuce will tolerate light frosts with little to no damage. Young seedlings are more prone to freeze damage, which can be prevented with the use of row covers. Ask your cooperative extension agent for help in diagnosing problems if needed.
Harvesting begins 30-60 days after seeding. It is best to harvest lettuce in the morning when it is at its crispest. Pick outside leaves first; the plant will continue to grow and produce new leaves. Store your fresh lettuce unwashed in a plastic bag in the refrigerator three to four days. Unwashed lettuce will retain nutrients, moisture, and crispness. Store lettuce away from apples, bananas, and pears because the ethylene gas they give off will turn your lettuce brown.
Lettuce’s season comes to an end during the warmer days and nights of May when the plants will begin to bolt. It grows tall (the flower stalk) and becomes bitter. While harvesting your lettuce you might notice a sticky white substance where you break off the leaves. The white substance is sap made of latex that’s naturally found in the lettuce and is harmless, but does have a bitter taste.
Lettuce is usually eaten raw in salads, but can be cooked. The appearance and flavor of a salad will be tastier if you combine several different types of lettuce. Lettuce can be added to soups as flavoring or it can be shredded and stir-fried. Lettuce is rich in vitamins A and C.
Would you like to surprise your luncheon guests? Instead of the same old iceberg, serve them a chilled bowl of ‘Tom Thumb’ with ‘Freckles’, or ‘Amish Deer Tongue’. There are hundreds of interesting varieties to try. They can be planted in pots, flowerbeds, or in the vegetable garden. Before you know it, you will have consumed your 30 pounds of lettuce.
WILTED LEAF LETTUCE SALAD
5 strips of bacon
¼ cup apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons brown sugar
7 cups torn leaf lettuce
½ sweet onion, sliced paper thin
Pepper to taste
Fry bacon until crisp, drain (saving drippings), and crumble. Place the lettuce in a large bowl. Top with onion and crumbled bacon. In a skillet, put the bacon drippings, vinegar, salt, pepper, and brown sugar. Cook until mixture is hot. Pour over lettuce in bowl and serve.
Eden Brothers, edenbrothers.com
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, rareseeds.com
Territorial Seed Company, territorialseed.com
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, southernexposure.com
Johnny’s Selected Seeds, johnnyseeds.com
Sow True Seed, sowtrueseed.com
Pinetree Garden Seeds, superseeds.com
Botanical Interests, botanicalinterests.com
Sustainable Seed Company, sustainableseedco.com