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Growing and Preparing Loose Leaf Lettuce
Questions or comments? Email author: Alice Henneman, MS, RD
UNL Extension in Lancaster County
If you're paying $2 to $ 4 for a bag of lettuce at the grocery store, you’ll be delighted to learn growing your own lettuce can save you money, and it’s easy to do! Another plus: It tastes great!
Loose leaf lettuce is one of the simplest lettuces to grow in home gardens and the type grown by most home gardeners. You just plant it, water it, harvest it and eat it!
Loose leaf lettuce varieties are those lettuces that do not form a compact head. Their flavor tends to be mild and sweet. And, they come loaded with benefits:
- colorful accent in foods
- delightful, cool crunch
- few calories –a cup of shredded leaf lettuce has about 5 calories
- a source of vitamin A
Loose leaf lettuce is considered more of a cool weather crop. Seeds typically are sown in early spring and again later in the summer or early fall. For fall harvest of loose leaf lettuce in Nebraska, sow seeds in late July to early August. However, loose leaf lettuce can be grown during most of the season if you select varieties that are heat-tolerant. It may be planted earlier or later in other locations, depending on your climate.
For other states, check with your local Extension Office or garden center for the best times to plant lettuce in your area. Find your local Nebraska office contact information.
Planting lettuce in a container garden can produce enough lettuce for several salads throughout the summer. The picture at the top of this article shows my three 8-inch diameter containers planted with different types of lettuce. For more information on container gardening, check Try Container Gardening, by Don Janssen, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension Educator.
You can selectively harvest outer lettuce leaves before the plant reaches full maturity or as soon as the outer leaves are 2- to 3-inches tall. You can cut or gently break off leaves as needed without harvesting the entire plant. Or, if the plant has reached the desired maturity, the entire plant can be pulled.
A benefit of growing your own lettuce is you can harvest it right before eating it. Rinse the leaves under running water. The easiest way to dry them is to place leaves in a salad spinner to remove the excess water. Or, you can dry them with a clean cloth or paper towel. If you wish to harvest lettuce earlier in the day for later use that day, store it in your salad spinner in the refrigerator. Or, refrigerate in a plastic bag.
Here are some easy ways to enjoy lettuce in foods:
- Toss with dressing for a simple side salad. For a quick vinegar and oil salad dressing, go to Recipe Central.
- Mix with cooked meats and other vegetables for a heartier salad. See Main Dish Salads in Recipe Central
- Cut into shreds and use in tacos.
- Add lettuce to sandwiches.
- Use leaves as edible plate “liners” on which to serve other foods. For example, serve a scoop of potato salad atop a lettuce liner.
- Use large, pliable lettuce leaves as a “wrap” or a “cup.” One way of serving wraps or cups is to place your filling (such as chicken salad – just make sure it isn’t too “runny”) in the center of a large serving platter and surround it on the outer edge with the lettuce leaves. Let people spoon their own filling onto the leaf. Then eat on a lettuce “cup” or wrap the lettuce around it for a “wrap.” For more ideas, search on the Internet for “lettuce wraps.”