Saving lettuce seeds is a great place to start learning to save your own seeds. This post will show you just how easy it is to save your own lettuce seeds.
Saving seeds can be a complicated, but also very fun and rewarding gardening skill to learn.
Today I want to talk about saving lettuce seeds.
Saving lettuce seeds is actually one of the easier seed saving projects. If you are interested in saving seeds I would suggest that saving lettuce seeds is a great place to start. Lettuce was one of the first plants I learned to save seeds from.
I few years back a friend of mine gave me some seeds for a great little red leaf lettuce. He didn’t know the name, just that they loved it. So in his honor we call the lettuce Larry’s red. I’ve lost contact with Larry since moving so I’ve also lost my source for seeds, I knew this was an heirloom variety so I had to learn how to save my own seeds. I’ve been able to keep this variety alive and growing in my garden now for 7 seasons by saving my own seeds every few years.
In this post I’m going to cover 3 aspects of savings lettuce seeds:
First how lettuce plants produce seeds, Second cross pollination concerns and how to deal with them, and third how and when to harvest and clean your lettuce seeds.
How Lettuce Plants Produce Seeds
The first step in saving lettuce seeds is understanding how lettuce plants produce seeds. One of the keys is to understand timing. A lettuce plant will bolt to seed as the days get longer and hotter in early to mid summer.
Bolting is a term used in gardening to describe the process of a plant developing a seed head (or flower). Not all vegetables bolt. If a vegetable produces a fruit (think, tomatoes, squash, melons) then the seeds develop in the fruit. But if the vegetable is one that doesn’t produce a fruit, then when it develops a flower head we call that “Bolting”. Lettuce is one of those plants that bolt.
The main trigger for lettuce plants to bolt is lengthening day light. The added heat of approaching summer is also a trigger to the plant to bolt. That is something to keep in mind if you are planning on saving lettuce seeds. It is best done in the spring and summer as it is much less likely that your lettuce plants will bolt when growing them in the fall and winter months.
2016 was my year for saving lettuce seeds from Larry’s Red. So here is a great picture of the early stages of bolting in my Larry’s Red lettuce. You can see the lettuce plant changes shape and starts forming this long stalk that will eventually flower.
Here’s a shot of one of the same plants later in the year, you can see a few of the little yellow flowers but for the most part this plant has finish flowering and the seeds are developing. Lettuce seeds develop a “feather” after flowering (kind of like a dandelion). Lettuce plants also are very irregular at flowering. You will see flowers developing on the plant over a period as long as 6 weeks with some types. Seeds are ready around 3 weeks after the flowering so you may need to harvest several times.
Lettuce is Self Fertile
Lettuce plants can be 100% self fertile. This means no insect pollination is required, which will come in handy when we talk about cross pollination issues later. For most varieties of lettuce the flower opens for just one day. With some varieties the flower may only be open for as little as 30 minutes. Once the flower has closed you will see development of the feather and then you know the seeds are on their way.
Cross Pollination Issues when savings lettuce seeds
Cross pollination is really not a huge deal with lettuce. There is a very small chance (5% according to the book Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth) that the lettuce flowers will be cross pollinated by insects. But many commercial growers (again according to Ashworth) believe cross pollination does not occur at all with lettuce plants. So to be honest, I really don’t worry to much about it.
But if you are concerned about cross pollination of your lettuce plants there are 3 methods you can use to prevent it.
The first and easiest method of preventing cross pollination of lettuce seeds is to only let one type of lettuce go to seed each year. This is the method I practice. Lettuce seeds if stored in a cool, dark place will last 3 to 5 years. So just set up your timing so that you only let one variety go to seed each season. Then there is ZERO chance of cross pollination.
If you grow too many varieties of lettuce to use the timing method then the second method is distance. The minium distance between flowering plants should be 12 feet but 25 or more would be better. So plan out your garden and lettuce plantings to allow for some space between plants to prevent cross pollination
The third method is to cover the plant with a wire cage (think something like a tomato cage) and to then completely cover the cage with a fabric row cover material. You then put this cage over the plant just before it starts to flower and leave it in place until the plant has finished flowering. The cage and material prevents any insects from getting access to the flowers.
Harvesting your Lettuce seeds
Harvesting is actually quite simple. Often it is as easy as putting the plant inside a paper grocery bag and giving it a shake!
I like to be a bit more precise with it. Just get a small container and sit by the plant and find all the mature seed heads. Then just take that head between your fingers and rub a bit and the seeds break free and fall into the container.
When you are harvesting the seeds you will also get a lot of the feathers and even seed heads. I like to spread the seeds out on a white paper plate (the white plate helps me see the seeds vs. the other junk).
To winnow the seeds stir everything up really good and then gently blow across the surface of the seeds to blow off any feathers. Repeat this several times. Now you only have seeds and seed head parts. I then just take a pair of tweezers and pick out the other left over parts. That is usually good enough for us home gardeners, we really don’t need to have the seeds perfectly clean like a commercial grower would.
I like to store my seeds in an envelope and then I put them in my seed box (Learn more about it here) and I keep the seed box in the coolest and darkest part of my basement. If you have room you can also store your seeds in your refrigerator.
How long it takes for saving lettuce seeds
This whole process actually takes a few months. March was the planting date for the lettuce I saved seeds this year. Most of the seeds I harvested were ready in late August. So from start to finish we were 6 months. Keep that in mind for you planning.
One lettuce plant doesn’t produce a ton of seeds, unless you are very careful when you harvest. So you should consider letting several plants go to seed if you are planning on having a supply of seeds that lasts for 3 years.
Can you Eat the lettuce?
You can harvest leaves from the lettuce plants you plan on harvesting seeds from before they bolt. Just not all of them. Harvest leaves from a leaf lettuce varieties but be sure not to harvest too heavily. Leave romain, head or butter head varieties without harvesting. So plan on growing some extra plants when you are going to be saving lettuce seeds.
Open Pollinated (heirloom) vs. Hybrid Plants
One other thing to keep in mind. It’s important that you know the difference between open pollinated and hybrid seeds. YOU CANNOT SAVE SEEDS FROM A HYBRID PLANT VARIETY. Find out before you save the seeds from any lettuce if it is an open pollinated variety. To learn more about Open pollinated plants vs. Hybrid plants please go read this great post by my friend . . .
A Great Resource for learning more
I love the book Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth(affiliate link). If you want to learn more about seed saving this book is an excellent resource!
Well there you have it. Saving lettuce seeds is a easy and a fun way to get started saving your own seeds.