Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Direct Seeding Lettuce in the Garden and How to Thin Lettuce Seedlings: By Picking the First Salad of the Season!

Baby Tom Thumb Lettuce in the Greenhouse

Back on February 20th, I scattered a spot about two feet square with Tom Thumb lettuce seeds leftover from 2008, sprinkled a thin layer of compost over them, and watered well. Because lettuce seeds don't seem to keep well for me, I sowed them more thickly than I normally would. Next to it, I scattered the rest of a packet of 2008 Winter Lettuce Mix in about the same size area.

On the other side of the Tom Thumb I direct seeded a small patch of mache (corn salad), which is one of the most (if not the most) cold tolerant salad greens you can grow. I've had volunteer mache sprout up in the greenhouse in the middle of winter. I figured I was probably pushing my luck planting in the greenhouse in late February, though, because mache doesn't like the heat, and it will quickly warm up to 100 degrees in there when the sun is shining. No matter—the 2008 seeds were a no show anyway. I've ordered more and will try again in the fall, probably sowing half the seeds in the greenhouse and half outside in a raised bed. I adore mache's nutty flavor and delicate rosettes of leaves.

I had much better luck with the lettuce seeds. It was a slow start sprouting (as of the
February 28th snowstorm there was no sign of anything coming up yet), but that wasn't surprising given how cold the soil was. A lot of times you're actually better off planting early spring crops like peas a week or two later than you think you should because they'll sprout faster and then catch right up to the earlier planted seeds, which is very good news for gardeners like me who are perpetually behind with everything. This is probably what happened with the lettuce.

As you can see, the Tom Thumb lettuce came up nice and thick, and on April 6th I picked enough tender baby plants to make a small, simple salad. It was wonderful. I'm a sucker for any butterhead variety, and while I've grown this type before, some quick fact checking in my seed catalogs has made me realize that I need to give it a little extra attention this year to find out just what this stuff does when given the space.

Pinetree Garden Seeds (where these seeds are from) says that Tom Thumb (47 days) "actually produces a full butterhead in a relatively short period of time. Six to seven inch heads have firm structure and compact habit. Leaves are dark green and the entire head wil make a large salad for one." This year Pinetree started labeling all of their heirloom varieties, but Tom Thumb isn't marked as one.

The Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalog, however, describes Tom Thumb as an heirloom lettuce that dates back to the 1850s and "makes small cabbage-like green heads, only 3" to 4" across." They say it's very tasty and "a winner for classy markets!"

I don't recall the leaves ever being particularly dark green, but maybe I just never paid attention. And now I'm curious about the size. In order for these plants to form those soft butterheads and reach maturity, though, they'll need a lot more space. Instead of thinning out lettuce plants when they've barely sprouted, I wait until they're big enough to eat. Then I pull some of plants up, gently tearing off the roots as I go, which means no dirt in the kitchen and tasty snacks for our foodie chickens—which have been multiplying for spring.

This gives the remaining plants some elbow room, which they quickly grow into. Two days after that first picking I took the photo above, and you can hardly tell we've already started eating the spring lettuce crop. A week later it was time to harvest again.

Great Greens in the Greenhouse, Including an Overwintered Swiss Chard Plant

The Winter Lettuce Mix, also from Pinetree Garden seeds, is to the right of the Tom Thumb in the photo above and is looking pretty good, too. I think we'll thin a little bit of it for tonight's dinner.

Are you enjoying spring salads yet? And have you ever grown Tom Thumb lettuce?

Related posts:
How To Easily Grow Your Own Gourmet Lettuce From Seed
Sublime Salads for Those Short on Time, Space, and Sunlight
On Loving Lettuce & Eating Salad for Breakfast
5/24/06: Mixed Baby Lettuce in the Garden & Eating Local
11/13/06: Petite Rouge Heirloom Lettuce in the Garden
5/8/07: Big Boston Lettuce in the Greenhouse

© Copyright 2009 FarmgirlFare.com, the going green foodie farm blog where we're looking forward to hopefully being able to enjoy freshly picked lettuce three times a day in the next month—because overindulging in spring is the only way to survive the hot summer and early fall without any!


  1. I "adopted" some Tom Thumb lettuce plants (along with others) and have planted them outside.... Don't know if they are big enough to pick yet for a small salad, and I'm worried about picking too early and then winding up with just roots in a few weeks. The thought of 3x a day pickings has my mouth watering! When did you figure they were big enough to start picking?

  2. I'm growing Tom Thumb for the first time this year, but it's not far enough along to eat yet. I'm looking forward to it! I planted Lolla Rossa, arugula, and microgreens too.

  3. Here in coastal South Carolina, I've already munched my way through my crops of mesclun, romaine, and spinach. YUM. MY husband just built me a raised bed, so I'm planning to sow some butter-type lettuce in the fall. I've already taken your advice about chard--I've got several pots and half my raised bed full of 4-inch high seedlings!

  4. OK, now I need the greenhouse. I planted some lettuce two weeks ago but they are just tiny little things. I can't wait for them to be pickable!

  5. How you tempt me, Susan. I have so far managed to resist picking the baby spinach and arugula that volunteered this spring (yay for volunteers!) because I figure they deserve the chance to grow a little bigger. The lettuce is not even at the thinning stage yet. All I've used out of the garden so far are the chervil, which grows like a weed and is YUMMY on steamed carrots, the green tops of a mysterious patch of volunteer garlic (how did it get there? HOW?), and some chives.

    But I did plant some more lettuce yesterday, and I'm guessing we'll be eating our lettuce in a couple of weeks. Assuming the weather stays warm. No Tom Thumb, though.

  6. Unfortunately we are almost done with tender cool season crops where I live in the central valley of California. It's predicted to be in the 90's this weekend and it just keeps getting hotter! I was late planting my left over spinach and radish seeds-they haven't even sprouted so I don't have much hope. But we have been eating a great leaf salad mix for over a month from seeds I planted last fall...I guess I wasn't so good at the watering!

  7. Here in southern Mass, I've been eating lettuce out of indoor pots since midwinter--poor things never get to grow bigger than a few inches tall because I snip 'em.

    I planted arugula and spinach outside in mid-March, and while it's up and sturdy, it's also tiny...I suspect this is an example of what you were talking about, that early planting may not really give you a head start.

  8. I just went out & bought some Tom Thumb & Mache seeds today on your recommendation. We live in Zone 5. Do you think the mache would overwinter outdoors here?

  9. No salads yet here in Northern Arkansas, but it can't be long. The lettuce is looking great. What we have been eating is turnip greens that sprouted from last fall's turnips. Now they have beautiful yellow flowers on them.

  10. Thanks for reminding me about Tom Thumb - I used to grow them and had forgotten how reliable they are, and I didn't know it was an old variety.
    Lovely photo at the top of this piece - mine are not so far on, but i enjoyed thinning them out earlier this week.

  11. In Alabama I'm ready to harvest lettuce and spinach - which I grew successfully for the first time this year.

    No Tom Thumb for us - early spring brings Red Romaine and late spring is arugula and chard - can't wait!

    PS - Harvested all of my fall-planted carrots this weekend. YUM!

  12. I've never grown Tom Thumb but I started a variety of lettuce seeds - as well as some chard and spinach - this year. I put them in the ground maybe 6 weeks ago and they've sprouted but, so far, I haven't harvested anything. I can't wait!

  13. Tom Thumb is in my kitchen garden--just the barest sprout of him, actually. I grew up hanging on the garden fence in Missouri, but now I garden way up in Maine (from whence cometh your TT seeds). The snow is just melting here, but I have mache that over-wintered under a fabric blanket and greenhouse-grade plastic. It will have to hold us until Tom Thumb and the mesclun mix from Fedco get on UP.

  14. You reminded me of a little secret dream garden I cultivate with all sorts of fairy tale seeds in it. Tom thumb lettuce, Cinderella pumpkins, and so on. One day, probably when my children are grown and gone, I'll get around to planting it. For now though, we just picked some our first lettuce this week, well actually my son's lettuce. I used a similar thinning method to choose which ones we would use in our salad, as I hadn't thinned enough initially.

  15. Great information! I wish my lettuce looked so good. I'm a new gardener and having a hard time with thinning. It's tedious, but well worth it, especially if you can eat it!

  16. That lettuce just looks incredibly slug free! How do you do it?

  17. Lettuce season has long past for zone 8a :(

  18. Hi! I've just come across your blog which looks really impressive. I love your practical tips and fabulous photos!
    I am about to embark on sowing some tomato seeds ("Sweet Olive F1 Hybrid" and "Moneymaker" but the weather here in Abruzzo isn't too good at the moment, so will have to delay this.
    I will be planting seeds in outdoor containers as well as in the ground. I really can't wait to eat my own fresh home produce!!

  19. I love the idea of the garden blog as a form of record keeping, because I'm a lousy record keeper too. I write my garden blog, http://a-gitate.blogspot.com, or A. G.arden I.s T.he A.nswer T.o E.verything, i a more free-flowy manner, but now take heart and inspiration that it can also serve as record keeping tool if I keep that thought in mind. Thank you.
    And yes, lettuce- I am direct sowing Tom Thumb in pots on the patio in Brooklyn. Can hardly wait to start picking.

  20. Susan, if you're having trouble getting your older lettuce seeds to germinate, you should try sprouting them first! That's how I do mine and I got 100% germination from last year's seeds. (several varieties of romaine & mesclun)

    To do it, just soak them in water overnight, or even for 24 hours. Then I put them on a plate, with a wet paper towel over the top, (one layer for each type of seed) and then cover it all with plastic (a baggie, or anything will do- last time I used the wrapping from a 6pack of paper towels).

    As soon as they sprout tiny little tails, you plant them as normal.

    The toughest part is counting out how many you need, and making sure you time it right - you don't want to let them get their first leaves - just a teeny tail. But barring that, I've found it works great.


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