With romaine lettuce back on the shelves in most grocery stores, and the CDC investigation winding down (it’s still ongoing as of this writing), it makes me wonder... why aren’t more people growing their own lettuce? We could have all been eating Caesar salads this whole time!
In 2018, the US saw 2 major E. coli outbreaks related to romaine lettuce. The first outbreak, with illnesses starting on March 13, was traced back to a contaminated canal in the Yuma, Arizona growing region. The outbreak was declared to be over on June 28, but saw 210 illnesses in 36 states, which resulted in 96 hospitalizations and 5 deaths. The second outbreak started on October 5, and was linked back to a single farm in Santa Barbara County, California. Investigations discovered the outbreak strand in sediment within an agricultural water reservoir on the farm. As of the latest numbers, 59 illnesses in 15 states have been reported, resulting in 23 hospitalizations, and 0 deaths. The second investigation is still ongoing.
The scariest part of these outbreaks is when they don’t know the source of the E. coli. Lettuce grown from all regions across the country are taken off shelves as a precaution, until more detail is known about the outbreak. However, if you shop at a local farmers’ market, you have a much lower percentage chance of being infected. Even lower if you grow your own.
The crisp, spoon-shaped leaves of romaine (also called cos) are actually really easy to grow. Even if you don’t have a yard, you can grow these crunchy favorites right in your kitchen.
Since lettuce is typically a fast growing vegetable, you won’t find many places offering seedlings to grow. These are a primarily seed-started plant.
I really like Johnny’s Selected Seeds for my romaine seed purchases. With 41 varieties to choose from, and a comparison chart to boot, they’re really taking the romaine game to the next level. Use the chart to identify which varieties are right for you... if you’re growing outdoors, you’ll want to focus on heat-tolerance, and bolt-tolerance. (Bolting is when it shoots stems up to flower, going to seed. It makes the leaves bitter, borderline inedible.) If you’re growing indoors, you’ll probably want to find small-to-medium sized heads that mature relatively quickly.
For outdoor growing, a raised bed works nicely here. Toss a bunch of seeds onto the surface, and gently rake them in. Seriously, that’s it. Or, be super ambitious... sow them exactly 1/4-inch below the surface, 6 inches apart in rows spaced 1 1/2 feet apart from each other. If you’re an Instagram gardener, go the ambitious route for good pictures. If you don’t care, and you just want your darn salad, use the toss-and-rake method.
For indoor growing, grab a medium sized pot, a grow bag, or heck, even one of those reusable grocery bags will work well. Fill your container with a moisture-retentive, well draining soil that has plenty of nitrogen. Sow your seeds as above.
Since lettuce is 90% water and has very shallow roots, you’ll want to make sure the surface of the soil is always moist, but not soggy. Lettuce requires about an inch of water per week, give-or-take, depending on how hot your grow area is. If you’re growing outdoors, go ahead and add a layer of grass mulch around your lettuce as it grows, to keep the weeds from competing, and to offer better water retention.
Most romaine lettuces take up to 2 months to fully grow to harvest size. However, you can harvest when smaller, if desired.
Be sure to harvest your lettuce in the morning. Overnight, lettuce gets a firm crispy texture to it, which softens throughout the day. If you harvest your romaine head at 2 in the afternoon, it’s going to be a sad limp mess by dinner time.
Using a sharp knife, cut the heads below the lowest leaves. Romaine leaves can keep in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks, but they are best when eaten fresh.
When all of your friends and family are complaining about not being able to order a salad in a restaurant, or all of the romaine in their Caesar salad being substituted with a lesser green, go ahead and point out as confidently as possible that you’ve been eating romaine this whole. entire. time. Because you grew it.
California lettuce? Who needs it.