There’s nothing quite like a fresh salad from the garden, and the basis of any good salad is lettuce. Lettuce picked from the garden is crisper, fresher, and just tasted better than lettuce you get at the grocery store. But how can you grow the best lettuce in your garden?
Lettuce is generally pretty easy to grow, but one of the most important factors to consider is light. Not only the number of hours, but the intensity of the light and how much time the lettuce spends in the shade. With lettuce, the quality of light is often more influential than the quantity.
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Lettuce and Light
Lettuce should receive between six and seven hours of sunlight every day. But the answer to the question of how much light does lettuce need to grow is not really that simple and straightforward. There are other things to consider about lettuce and light.
When choosing a spot to grow lettuce in your garden, plant it where it will get some shade during the day. Although lettuce likes a bit of light to grow, it does not like either abundant direct sunlight or spending too much time in the shade.
With lettuce, balance is key, but finding this balance isn’t always easy to do. Lettuce needs between six and seven hours of direct sunlight a day. Any more than that, and it can cause damage known as bolting.
What is Bolting in Lettuce?
Bolting is a reaction to stress, and it’s what happens when lettuce gets too much sunlight. When lettuce bolts, it flowers too early and goes to seed, attempting to reproduce before it dies. One this process starts, there’s no way to reverse it.
When lettuce bolts, it grows tall and thin instead of wide and leafy. It’s still edible, but it doesn’t taste nearly as good as a healthy plant. Bolted lettuce uses up its sugar stores for the energy needed to flower, so it ends up tasting very bitter.
Just because you might not want to eat bolted lettuce doesn’t mean you can’t use it. While it may not make the best salad, you can always add it to your smoothies. Fruits and other vegetables will mask the bitter taste, and you still get the same healthy vitamins and nutrients.
Bolted lettuce is also the perfect addition to compost as it quickly breaks down and will deliver nitrogen to the soil, benefitting your other plants.
You can also harvest the seeds from bolted lettuce and use them to replant. If you don’t harvest them, they will eventually fall and blow away. To do so, wait until the flowers dry. Then, shake the flower over a bag to collect the seeds.
Dump the seeds onto a plant and shake gently or blow on them to separate the pod from the seeds. The pods are light and should blow away, leaving the heavier seeds on the plate.
What Can You Do If Your Lettuce Gets too Much Sunlight?
Too much sunlight is the top stressor of lettuce and the main reason for bolting. You must make sure your lettuce is not getting too much direct sunlight to prevent this because, as mentioned, once bolting begins, there’s no way to stop it. Prevention is key.
The best thing you can do is choose the perfect spot to plant your lettuce. Maybe you have an ideal place in your garden that receives the right amount of sunlight where your lettuce can thrive.
If not, don’t worry. Here are a few techniques to help prevent your lettuce from getting too much sun:
Plant earlier in the season. Lettuce can grow in cooler temperatures. In fact, most varieties prefer them. The optimal temperature range for lettuce is between 60 and 65 degrees F (15.6-18.3°C). Planting it before the hot, sunny days of summer arrive is one way to keep it healthy.
Provide shade. Sometimes, you get lucky and there’s a perfectly placed tree in your yard to provide shade. Other times, you need to create shade yourself. Shade covers are a great way to protect your lettuce. They protect against the heat and bright sunlight while still allowing water to pass through and air to circulate.
Choose a variety that’s a little more tolerant to sunlight. If you live in a bright, sunny climate with hot temperatures, sometimes choosing a heat and light-resistant variety is the best. Try Buttercrunch, Nevada, Summer Bibb, or Green Star.
What else Does Lettuce Need?
While light is one of the trickier things when growing lettuce, there are other things to consider, too.
Water is important for all plants, and that goes for lettuce, too. A good rule of thumb is to water your lettuce twice a week. That said, this really depends on the size of the plant and the amount of rainfall.
To make sure you’re not overwatering your lettuce, make sure the surrounding soil is dry to the touch first. If it feels dry, water to about six inches deep. Then, wait for it to dry out again before watering the next time.
Is your lettuce turning red after you harvest it? This common lettuce problem is caused by oxidation. The chlorophyll inside the lettuce that is usually green turns red when exposed to oxygen. Although it might look a little funny, it’s still safe to eat.
The best way to prevent this is to store lettuce wrapped or in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Keep it away from other vegetables and fruits to avoid gassing that can speed up the oxidation.
Once you figure out how to give your lettuce the proper amount and quality of light, it will repay you by growing healthy and strong. It’s also worth noting that, if harvested correctly, lettuce will continue to regrow, giving you harvest after harvest every few weeks.
Cut the lettuce, leaving at least two inches of the plant intact above the soil, and tend to it as you normally would. In a few weeks, the leaves will grow back and it will be ready for another harvest.