Saving lettuce seeds is a great place to start learning how to save your own seeds. Saving seeds can be complicated, but it is also a very fun and rewarding gardening skill to learn.
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Saving Lettuce Seeds
Saving lettuce seeds is actually one of the easiest seed-saving projects. If you are interested in learning how to save seeds I think lettuce seeds are a great place to start. Lettuce was actually one of the first plants I learned to save seeds from!
A few years back a friend of mine gave me some seeds for a great heirloom variety of 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. Over the years I’ve lost contact with Larry, so I knew 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.
3 Aspects of Saving Lettuce Seeds
There are 3 aspects of saving lettuce seeds that you need to understand before you start saving seeds. First, you need to know how lettuce plants produce seeds. Second, you have to understand cross-pollination concerns and know how to deal with them. Third, you need to understand 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 bolting.
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. However, if the vegetable is one that doesn’t produce 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 daylight. The added heat of approaching summer is also a trigger to the plant to bolt. If you are planning on saving lettuce seeds, it is best to do it in the spring and summer as it is much less likely that your lettuce plants will bolt when they are growing in the fall and winter months.
Above, you can see 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 a 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 leftover yellow flowers, but for the most part, this plant has finished flowering and the seeds are developing. Lettuce seeds develop a “feather” after flowering (similar to a dandelion). Lettuce plants also are very irregular in flowering. You will see flowers developing on the plant over a period of 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. 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 the 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. However, 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 too 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 will last 3 to 5 years if they are stored in a cool, dark place. So I recommend that you time it, 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 option is distance. The minimum 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 (like a tomato cage) and then completely cover the cage with 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 prevent 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!
However, 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. To get just the seeds, I like to spread the seeds out on a white paper plate (the white plate helps me see the seeds vs. the other junk).
Next, I stir everything up really well and then gently blow across the surface of the seeds to blow off any feathers. Repeat this several times. That should leave you with just seeds and seed head parts. I then take a pair of tweezers and pick out the other leftover parts. That is usually good enough for home gardeners, we really don’t need to have the seeds perfectly clean as 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.) I keep the seed box in the coolest and darkest part of my basement. If you have the room, you can also store your seeds in your refrigerator.
How Long Does it Take to Save Seeds?
This whole process actually takes a few months. March was the planting date for the lettuce I saved seeds for this year. Most of the seeds I harvested were ready in late August. So from start to finish, it took about 6 months.
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 leaf lettuce varieties before they bolt, but be sure not to harvest too heavily. Leave romaine, head, or butterhead varieties without harvesting. Plan on growing some extra plants when you are going to be saving lettuce seeds so that you can harvest both lettuce and seeds.
Open Pollinated (Heirloom) vs. Hybrid Plants
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.
I love the book Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth. If you want to learn more about seed saving this book is an excellent resource!
Well, there you have it! Saving lettuce seeds is an easy and fun way to get started saving your own seeds!