Anyone who has been grocery shopping or tried to order a restaurant salad recently will be aware of either the complete lack of product or the incredible price hike on all styles of lettuce. This situation is being driven by a combination of weather and disease issues in California lettuce crops, which is where the vast majority of North American salad greens come from (and any alternate crop regions have significantly increased prices since supply is so tight). One easy fox to this problem is to grow your own, indoors, this winter!
Growing lettuce indoors
Producing organic lettuce and other leafy greens indoors is easy and inexpensive so long as you think in terms of baby greens rather than full heads. Baby greens are simply leafy crops sown densely and harvested between 21 and 28 days from when you sow them (vs. sprouts at 1-3 days from sowing, microgreens at about 15 days, and full-size, which ranges depending on variety). By sowing for baby greens, you quickly get to the first harvest and can grow efficiently compared to the longer grow times required for full heads, which also take up significantly more room. The short grow-times associated with baby greens also make them more foolproof, as there is less opportunity for things to go wrong.
The basic requirements for growing leafy baby greens are:
1) a composty organic potting mix
2) a shallow container with drainage holes (minimum of about 2" depth is required)
3) organic lettuce seeds, ideally loose-leaf types, but small butterhead and romaine varieties work too
It also helps tremendously during the shortest days of the year to use full spectrum grow lights, as your crop will develop more quickly, evenly, and to its fullest potential. If lights are not available, the brightest window will also work but plan for less productivity November thru February.
Lettuce and other leafy greens such as herbs will grow noticeably more quickly and easily if sown under full spectrum grow lights.
The process of starting lettuce indoors is simple. Start by filling your container(s) loosely with the composty potting mix. Pre-moisten the mix before sowing. At Sage Garden, we blend approximately 30% Sea Soil with 70% organic Pro-Mix (what we call a 2:1 organic mix or Winter Greens mix). Worm castings could also be used. By including high-nutrient compost directly in the soil you bypass the need to add supplemental fertilizer later on, and the water-holding/slow-release qualities of the mix reduce watering stresses.
Baby greens are sown densely, with approximately 50 - 70 seeds sown per 6" square of soil surface area. Lettuce packs typically have 100 - 500 seeds each... so they are very good value!
Once the pre-moistened mix is in place, simply scatter the seeds evenly across the soil surface and then press them gently into the soil. Lettuce seeds require light to germinate, so be mindful of not pushing the seeds too far into the soil. But, they also require seed-to-soil contact, so don't skip the gentle pressing!
If growing under lights, at this point you can move your tray(s) into position and look forward to seeing the first germination in 3 - 7 days. If not using lights, look for a genuinely bright window. Lettuce germinates and grows best if the soil is slightly warm and the air is cooler, so keep this in mind when setting up your leafy-greens operations (don't set up right next to a heat vent, for example).
During germination, check on the soil moisture daily and water or spritz so as to maintain moist soil that is not soggy. As your lettuces grow, you will notice they need more frequent watering (about every one to three days, depending on conditions); be sure to water deeply each time, hydrating the full root zone.