Harvesting lettuce sounds easy, but a lot goes into it. In this article, I will teach you how to harvest lettuce in three different ways.
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In this Article
- When and How to Grow Lettuce
- When is Lettuce Ready to Harvest?
- Is there a good time of day to harvest lettuce?
- Three Different Ways to Harvest Lettuce
- The Cut and Come Again Method
- Removing the Older Outer Leaves
- Cutting the Whole Head
- How Long Does Lettuce Last in the Garden?
- How can I extend my summer harvest and keep my Lettuce Plants from Bolting?
- How can I extend my Lettuce harvest into winter?
- Cleaning and Storing Your Lettuce After Harvesting
- My Favorite Lettuce Varieties
Who doesn’t love a good salad full of homegrown salad greens? We try to eat a healthy veggie-packed salad every day, and lettuce fresh from the garden is the main feature of our salads.
Did you know that there are actually 3 different ways you can harvest lettuce? If you are reading this article just to learn when to harvest lettuce you can click here to skip to that section. Learning how to harvest lettuce is the main focus of this article, but we will also teach you how to grow lettuce and how to clean and store lettuce after you have harvested it.
When and how to grow lettuce
Lettuce is a cool-season vegetable. Most varieties of lettuce prefer to grow in temperatures under 80 degrees Fahrenheit (about 27 Celsius). Normally we are planting and grow lettuce in the spring and fall.
There are a few tricks to extend your growing season into the summer and winter and we will talk about those at the end of this article.
Lettuce requires full sun for really successful crops, but it can also be grown in areas with partial shade. Add plenty of compost to your soil and plant the lettuce seed just below the soil’s surface with only a 1/8 inch of soil on top of the seeds.
Light fabric row covers also are a big help in both the spring and fall. They aid in germination and protect from both excess heat and cold.
When to Plant Lettuce Seeds?
You can begin planting lettuce in the spring about 6 to 8 weeks before your last frost date. However, you can really start planting lettuce as soon as the soil has dried enough to work. Plant seeds an inch apart in rows that are spaced 8 to 12 inches apart.
Succession planting will help extend your harvest, so be sure to do multiple seed sowings throughout the season. Planting in the fall can start about 8 weeks before your first frost and continue up until about 2 weeks before your first frost date.
It is important to keep your beds well-watered, especially right after sowing seeds. This will help with germination and will also help your seedlings which need a lot of water to grow quickly.
Common Pests for Lettuce Plants
Common pests for lettuce plants include snails, slugs, and aphids. A good organic snail bait like Sluggo Plus will help with the slugs and snails. Aphids can be handled with some homemade insecticidal soap. You can also use a light fabric row cover to help protect your plants from aphids.
Planting your lettuce near smelly plants like chives or mint can also cut down on aphids. If you would like to learn more about how to grow lettuce please check out my complete lettuce-growing guide.
When is Lettuce Ready to Harvest?
The nice thing about lettuce is it doesn’t take long to be ready to harvest. Time to maturity can be as short as 35-40 days with some loose-leaf lettuce varieties.
Lettuce is edible at almost any stage. If you would like full-sized heads then you will need to wait a little longer. Most varieties of lettuce reach full maturity between 45 to 60 days depending on the type of lettuce.
Is there a good time of day to harvest lettuce?
Morning is usually the best time of day for harvesting lettuce. You will find lettuce plants are crisper and less stressed out in the cool of the morning. The next best time to harvest would be late in the evening. Try to avoid harvesting during the heat of the day when the plant could be wilting in the sun.
How to Harvest Lettuce 3 Different Ways
The Cut and Come Again Method
Will lettuce regrow after cutting? Yes! This is especially true for leaf lettuce varieties. This method called “cut and come again” involves cutting the entire lettuce plant down to within an inch of the soil’s surface.
You do this using scissors, garden shears, or a sharp knife. Make sure when you do this method that you leave at least 1 inch of the lettuce plant above the surface of the dirt. This leaves enough of the lettuce plant above the soil’s surface to allow it to regrow.
You should be able to do this 3 or more times during the season, trimming off the plants and then letting them grow back again and again.
Our favorite lettuce to use for this method is called Black Seeded Simpson. It is a nice pale green lettuce with lots of flavor. Another variety that works well with the cut and come again method is Oak Leaf.
Removing the Older Outer Leaves
With this method, you simply pull off the older larger leaves surrounding the plant. These leaves will taste great and will also have a really nice crunch to them. Harvesting this way allows the heads of lettuce to continue to grow larger while you get to “steal” a few leaves from each of your plants to make a salad. Many of the loose-leaf and even some of the looser-head lettuce varieties do well with this method.
Eventually, you will end up harvesting the remaining head of lettuce as it reaches a good harvestable size. In the meantime, you still get salads as the plants grow.
This method works well for crisphead lettuce (also known as Bibb or Boston lettuces) and even some romaine lettuce.
Our favorite varieties to harvest this way are buttercrunch, winter density, and Paris Island.
Cutting the Whole Head
This method is going to be used to harvest lettuce varieties where you use the entire head of lettuce. With this method, you use a sharp knife to cut the stem of the lettuce plant off, removing the head of lettuce.
If you leave an inch or two of the stem cut off above the soil’s surface the plant will sometimes regrow. You won’t get another head of lettuce, but you could get some extra leaves to eat.
This method is used for head lettuce varieties like romaine lettuce, iceberg lettuce, and butterhead lettuce. Our favorite varieties here are Paris Island (romaine lettuce) and Buttercrunch (butterhead lettuce).
How Long Does Lettuce Last in the Garden?
Most varieties of lettuce will last between 60 to 75 days in the garden, but only if the weather is cool! Once the weather starts to warm up in the late spring and goes above 80 degrees (27C) you will quickly start to see the quality of your lettuce drop.
Warmer weather and hot sunshine cause tip burn (crispy browning on the edges of lettuce leaves) and will also cause bitter lettuce. Eventually, your lettuce plants will start to produce a seed stalk. We call this process bolting.
When your lettuce plant bolts it will send up a flower stalk that will turn into many small flowers. In a few months, it will produce new seeds. (A pretty amazing process if you ask me!) You can learn how to harvest your own lettuce seeds here.
How can I keep my Lettuce Plants from Bolting?
You can’t! Unfortunately given enough time, even without added stress from the heat your lettuce plants will bolt, it is just part of their natural process. There are a few things you can do to slow down bolting and the bitter lettuce taste. This can help keep your lettuce tasting good longer into the summer.
Succession planting helps prolong your lettuce harvest by providing a continual supply of younger plants. As you plant in both the spring and fall, sow your beds in pieces. Plant enough lettuce to last a couple of weeks, then wait 2 weeks and plant more. This will mean that all of your lettuce isn’t reaching maturity at the same time, prolonging that harvest.
Use Shade Cloth
You will be amazed at how much a piece of 30% shade cloth will help keep your lettuce cool. Hang the shade cloth over your plants on a hoop structure or on some poles. Be sure it is angled so that it provides the most protection in the late afternoon when the sun is the hottest. This can add several weeks to your lettuce harvest!
Plant in Shady Spots
Leafy greens like lettuce do well in the shade. You can plant your lettuce in areas of your garden that get partial shade during the day. This will help prolong your harvest. It would be even better if you plant in an area that has morning sun and afternoon shade.
A good 3 or 4-inch layer of mulch will help the soil retain water and will also help keep the soil and your lettuce plants cool. This will help slow the bolting process!
Use Tall Companion Plants
Planting your lettuce in the shade of taller plants like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, or corn will help keep them cool and stretch out the growing season.
How do I extend my Lettuce Plants into Winter?
All of the above garden tips were for extending your lettuce in the summer months, but what about winter? You can grow lettuce in the fall and winter so you will be able to extend your lettuce growing season.
If you plant your lettuce seeds for fall 8 weeks before your first frost date then you can harvest some lettuce even in December by using a cold frame or hoop house. You can also learn more about growing early-season greens from this article.
Cleaning and Storing Your Lettuce After Harvesting
Once you have harvested your lettuce you still need to clean it up and get it ready to eat! This can be trickier than you might think.
Washing lettuce is simple, either rinse the leaves or head under a strong stream of cool water in your sink. Or you can fill a large bowl full of water and let it soak for a few minutes and rinse.
The problem comes when it is time to dry the lettuce off. You can’t store lettuce in the fridge wet! Wet lettuce becomes slimy and moldy very quickly. So you need to dry it off before you store it.
Over the years we have tried several different methods for drying off salad greens. We even bought a salad spinner that ended up being a disappointment. We finally settled on a large beach towel! Yes, you read that right. We put a large beach towel on our kitchen counter and then spread the wet lettuce leaves over the towel.
Then we simply roll the towel up and gently press. The towel soaks up almost all of the moisture. Remember to handle your lettuce leaves carefully as you dry them. They can bruise easily so when drying be gentle and press softly.
Once the lettuce is dry we store it in our refrigerator in an air-tight container or a closed bag. It can last for up to 10 days!
My Favorite Lettuce varieties to grow?
We have grown a lot of varieties of lettuce over the years and these are the top 5 lettuce varieties that we grow in our garden each year!!
Growing lettuce in your backyard garden can be a tasty and rewarding project! Now that you know how to harvest lettuce, get out in your garden this spring or fall and grow your own salads!!