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How to Get Lettuce Seeds to Germinate

Overhead view of gardener wearing pink gardening gloves planting young lettuce plants into garden soil

Lettuce is a highly nutritious and highly resilient plant. There are many different varieties of lettuce you can grow to spice up your garden, and with a pretty quick payoff since lettuce grows relatively fast compared to other crops. While lettuce grows best in the cooler months of spring and fall, with a little extra love, lettuce can grow during the summer and even the winter months as well. Without proper care, however, lettuce seeds can fail to germinate completely. Factors like soil type, climate, water, and planting techniques can all cause germination to fail. So, how do you get your lettuce seeds to germinate? Keep reading to find out! 

What does germination mean? 

Seed germination is the process in which seeds by absorbing water and oxygen begin to sprout. Plant seeds are dormant, but begin to germinate when they are planted in their ideal conditions. The factors of ideal conditions include water, sunlight, nutrients and minerals in the soil, the pH level of the soil, and more. Lettuce seeds for example take around 7 days to germinate and sprout[5]. Other plants can take more or less time to fully germinate. During the germination process, the seed will expand, absorb water, and begin to grow roots to take in nutrients from the soil. As small leaves begin to sprout the plant will begin to take in more nutrients from the sun and will continue to grow into a mature plant as long as its ideal conditions are maintained. 

Overhead view of a gardeners work station with various plants and pots and gardening tools potting lettuce seedlings

What mistakes cause lettuce seed germination to fail?

Planting seeds too deep

Lettuce seeds should be planted very shallowly in the soil in order to properly germinate. If they are planted too deeply they will not get adequate sunlight and will be unable to sprout above the soil. You should plant lettuce seeds just 1/4 inch deep[3] so your lettuce seed can get enough light to germinate. 


All plant seeds need moisture to germinate. Too much water however can drown out your seeds killing them. The soil should be moist but never soaking wet or soggy. Use a moisture meter or your finger to test how moist the soil is under the surface, being careful not to disturb the seedling. 


Plant seeds are in a dormant state and require moisture, oxygen, and light to germinate. If your seed has inadequate water it will fail to germinate. You should keep your lettuce seedlings soil constantly moist. 

Not hardening off seedlings

It’s easiest to start lettuce seedlings indoors in a seedling tray or in small pots, and then transfer them into the garden after they have sprouted and established roots. Before you transfer your seedlings directly into the garden, however, they need to be hardened off. This means acclimating them to the environment outdoors. You can harden off seedlings by leaving them outdoors for increasingly longer periods of time until they can withstand being outside for an entire day. Planting them too early could shock and kill them. 

Planting seedlings at the wrong time

Seedlings are very vulnerable and can be a bit picky. You should transfer your immature lettuce plants into the garden in the early spring[3] in prepared soil, or in the early fall, depending on when you plan on harvesting. 

Inadequate sunlight

Part of why it is crucial to plant your lettuce seeds shallow is so they can get enough sunlight. Seedlings require lots of direct suns to grow strong healthy roots. Put your seedlings in a location with direct sun for the majority of the day, or use a grow light indoors. Be sure to keep the soil moist so it doesn’t get dried out by the sun. 

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How to get lettuce seeds to germinate

When should you plant lettuce seeds?

Lettuce seeds grow best in the cooler months of spring and fall. If it is too hot or too cold they can have a difficult time germinating. If you are planting in the spring, you should plant your lettuce in the garden as soon as the soil is workable[3] in early spring. If you are planting in the fall, you should plant your lettuce as soon as the weather cools down. Lettuce seeds should be grown in seedling trays or small pots so they can germinate before transplanting into the garden. You should plant your seeds in seedling trays around a week before you plan on translating them into the garden. Lettuce seeds take anywhere from 4-10 days to germinate[3]. 

What kind of soil should you use when planting lettuce seeds?

Lettuce performs its “best in loose, cool soil with good drainage”[4]. When planting in the garden you should prepare the soil, loosen it, and add mulch or compost to improve drainage as well as add nutrients to the soil. Lettuce also likes slightly neutral soil. You can use a pH testing kit to test the pH level of your soil, being sure to maintain it at a level of at least 6[4].

How much water do lettuce seeds need?

All seeds need adequate water to properly germinate. Lettuce seeds will grow best in soil that is constantly moist but not wet. As lettuce continues to grow in the gardening it can be more lightly watered. The soil should still be moist, with light and consistent watering. Watering too often or too deep can cause roots or seeds to die. 

What type of fertilizer do lettuce seeds need?

Even though lettuce can grow pretty easily and quickly without it, you can enhance lettuce plants even more by adding fertilizer. An all-purpose balanced fertilizer will do the trick, but lettuce particularly enjoys a fertilizer that is packed with a little extra nitrogen. Nitrogen-rich fertilizer will “promote faster, more lush growth”[1] so when picking a fertilizer choose one with a “higher N value in the NPK numbers”[1]. 

You can also add nitrogen to your soil by using gardening and food waste. Instead of throwing your grass clippings into the green bin, if you have an organic lawn free of harsh chemicals you can use your grass clippings as a natural fertilizer. Grass is heavy in nitrogen[2] so it will provide extra nutrients to your lettuce garden. It can be laid on top of the soil like mulch, keeping the soil moist, adding nitrogen, and also deterring weeds. 

Additionally, another waste you can use up is coffee grinds. Coffee grinds are a great source of nitrogen. You can mix them in with your soil when you are preparing for planting. Make sure there is not a layer of coffee grinds on top of the soil as this can repel water. 

What planting method do lettuce seeds need?

Lettuce seeds are extremely small and delicate, so they should be planted shallow. Lettuce seeds only “require a planting depth of 1/4 to 1/2 inch deep”[4]. Use loose potting soil for your seedlings, and plant them in a seed tray, or small pot indoors before transferring them to the garden. If you are planting directly into the garden or transplanting your seedlings to the garden, they should be spaced 10-12 inches apart[4].

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Lettuce is a great addition to any garden. Lettuce is resilient, it’s pretty low maintenance, and there are dozens of different varieties to choose from. For the best results, you should grow your lettuce plants as seedlings indoors first, slowly hardening them off before transplanting them into the garden. To get your lettuce seeds to germinate quickly and strongly, keep them moist, with lots of sun, and nitrogen-rich soil. Remember, lettuce seeds are very delicate, and only need to be planted shallowly in order to germinate properly. By following our list of tips, your lettuce plants will be sure to germinate and eventually grow into a bountiful garden. 


Article Sources:

  1. Bountiful Gardener. “8 Best Fertilizers for Lettuce in 2022
  2. Farmers’ Almanac. “8 Best Homemade Natural Garden Fertilizers
  3. Get Busy Gardening. “How To Grow Lettuce From Seed & When To Plant
  4. Gilmour. “Growing Lush, Green, Crisp Lettuce
  5. The Seed Collection. “Lettuce – How to grow from seed