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Spotlight on lettuce

Tips on growing, harvesting, and more

close up of some lettuce
close up of some lettuce
When to harvest lettuce depends on the variety of lettuce you plant. Here are a few guidelines based on different types of lettuce.

For head lettuce, you should harvest when the head becomes firm. Just pull the entire plant out of the ground, cut off the roots, dip into cold water, and refrigerate until eating. This will keep lettuce fresh and crisp.

Bibb and leaf lettuce varieties can be harvested over time to give you a continued supply of lettuce. Do this by gently pulling off the outer (oldest) leaves or use a knife to cut them. This allows the plant to continue producing new leaves for another day. Be careful not to pull up the roots of the plant as you take off the outer leaves. This is a good strategy when you have limited lettuce plants in your garden. You can also pull up the entire plant all at once as soon as the plant is big enough to eat. When you leave the roots of loose leaf varieties in the ground, they usually continue to grow a few more leaves.

Bolting lettuce

One of the biggest problems to watch for is lettuce that bolts up. The plant will grow a flowering stalk in the middle of the plant and the flowers will eventually turn into seeds. When lettuce bolts, the leaves become very bitter so it must be harvested before it bolts. Since lettuce typically likes cooler weather, it often bolts as the weather gets warmer.

The best way to avoid losing your lettuce crop to bolting is to watch it daily. Pay close attention to the leaves (if they start to elongate) and keep checking for the sprout in the middle that can shoot up very quickly. If you check every day, you should be able to catch and harvest just as it starts to bolt, before it gets too bitter. Of course, if you miss the signs and your lettuce bolts, learning to grow food is a process, so laugh it off and throw it in the compost! You'll catch it next time around.
Click here to view a photo of lettuce plants bolting.

Growing lettuce in the summer

Try growing "slow to bolt" or "bolt resistant" varieties of lettuce, which should be specified on the seed packet. Summer crisp varieties, such as Nevada and Magenta, are popular choices for a summer lettuce crop.

On really hot, dry days, keep your lettuce plants well watered (sometimes more than once in a day) and they should be pretty forgiving.

Strategize when planting lettuce. For instance, consider planting lettuce near tomatoes. They will get full sun in the spring because your tomatoes aren't in the ground yet, or they are young and short. Once the tomatoes mature, they will provide shade for lettuce in the hottest months.

Will reading the seed packet help determine when plants are ready to harvest?

On any seed packet, it will estimate how many days a given crop will take to mature once it is planted. For example, this year we gave out Black Seeded Simpson leaf lettuce seeds and on the label, it says "42 days." This means that the lettuce will take about 42 days to mature once the seeds are planted; while this might be helpful, this number relies on the most ideal conditions being present. Realistically, this is a ball park figure and plants will often take longer than this estimation. Therefore it is best to observe your plants in order to make the best decisions about when to harvest.

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