When you buy a head of lettuce at the grocery store, there’s always a good possibility that some of it will be wasted, which is why so many people want to plant it in their garden. We’ll break down all the information you need to know about when lettuce is ready and how to best harvest it for your use.
How to know when to harvest lettuce? Lettuce takes about 65 to 90 days to mature, which is quite a large variable. It really comes down to the variety you plant, so be sure to read the seed label to get a sense of when to expect your lettuce to be ready.
Once it pops out of the ground, pay attention to the height of the leaves. For loose-leaf lettuce, wait until it is 2 to 3 inches tall. For head lettuce, such as iceberg, wait until the leaves are 6 to 8 inches tall.
Your lettuce will enjoy cool temperatures and if it starts to droop, it means it needs more water. For loose-leaf varieties, simply cut the outside leaves as needed. The inside leaves will continue to grow, allowing you to have an abundance of lettuce. For head varieties, such as romaine, you will have to remove the entire plant, sometimes including the roots.
When stored properly, in a perforated plastic bag, nestled in your fridge’s crisper drawer, lettuce can last for weeks. In fact, you could theoretically have fresh, crisp lettuce for months.
Finally, lettuce can be grown in both the spring and the fall. Don’t forget to plant a second crop so you can enjoy your leafy greens in the fall.
How do you know when your lettuce is ready to harvest?
There are different types of lettuce you can grow and because of the varieties it can be hard to tell when your lettuce is ready. There are a few important signs to note, mainly surrounding size.
For those gardeners who have loose leaf lettuce, wait for the leaves to be about 2 to 3 inches long. Shorter leaves won’t provide you with much food while longer leaves may become too bitter.
As for heads of lettuce, such as butterhead or romaine lettuce, you want the leaves to be much longer, upwards of 6 to 8 inches. Again, harvest too early and you’ll waste the chance of having enough lettuce and if you wait too long your lettuce could either wilt or become too bitter.
Always remember that any type of lettuce will grow best in cool weather. Warmth will affect the texture and the taste, with the result being lettuce that doesn’t reach its full sweetness potential.
If the weather is starting to really warm up and your lettuce is almost ready but not quite, you may have to make the judgment call of harvesting it before the warm weather spoils it.
What happens if you don’t harvest lettuce?
Like most vegetable plants, if you leave lettuce too long it will go to seed. In the middle of your lettuce, no matter what the variety, you will see a seed stalk if left unattended.
It’s important to harvest your lettuce before this seed stalk grows. Otherwise, your lettuce will become very bitter.
You can actually let this process happen naturally as once the seed stalk grows, you can harvest lettuce seeds. They are very tiny so be careful when picking them up and storing them. The nice thing about lettuce is that it self-pollinates, so you don’t have to worry about bees visiting your plants.
There is a chance that your lettuce will grow on its own again the following year because of the seeds but you shouldn’t count on it. The seeds are quite tiny and can easily be blown away.
As for the leaves themselves, if not harvested they will turn to a brown mush. It’s best to clean this up at some time, transferring the pile to your compost, in order to make room for future vegetable growth.
How to harvest loose leaf lettuce?
There are two types of lettuce you can grow in your garden and loose leaf lettuce is probably the more popular. Not only can you simply pick what you need but you can make it so your lettuce plant continues to produce more leaves for future picking.
Once your leaf lettuce is 2 to 3 inches tall, you can start to harvest it. Use a sharp knife or even garden shears and cut at the base of the leaf.
You always want to cut the outside leaves first so that the inner leaves will continue to grow. Cut as many leaves as you want but if you want the plant to keep growing, keep a good amount of inner leaves so they will continue to grow.
How to harvest head lettuce
In addition to loose-leaf varieties, there are also head lettuce varieties. These include romaine lettuce and iceberg lettuce.
Essentially, when you want to harvest these types of lettuce, you have to remove the entire plant. Once you do so, it will stop growing so it’s a one-time-use serving of lettuce.
The simplest way to harvest head lettuce is to pull at the base of the plant and remove it from the ground. Roots will most likely come up from the dirt but you can cut these off and tidy the plant afterwards.
Should you wash lettuce after harvesting?
Lettuce definitely needs to be washed before eating but it should not be done so right after harvesting. Too much moisture and the leaves will be prone to rot.
Instead, wait until just before you want to use your lettuce. Give them a good rinse and pat them dry with paper towel.
Alternately, you can wash your lettuce and then place it in a salad spinner. This will remove the moisture so you don’t have watery lettuce.
Can you eat lettuce immediately after harvesting?
Yes, the beauty of lettuce is that you can simply go outside and pick it, and then eat it right away. This is perfect if you just need a few leaves for your sandwich or a wrap.
We mentioned earlier that with loose leaf lettuce, you can cut the outer leaves to encourage new growth, thus prolonging the growing stage. You should do this, even if you have no immediate need for lettuce as it keeps fairly well in the fridge.
Just note that while lettuce can be harvested throughout the day if needed, it is better to harvest it in the morning when its leaves are naturally hydrated from the cooler nights.
After you cut off some of the outer layers, place it in a plastic bag that has holes in it. Lettuce needs to breathe and if it is in an airtight container, it will quickly wilt.
Place the lettuce in your fridge, preferably in the crisper drawer. It’s actually quite amazing how long lettuce will last.
For example, crisphead lettuce can last up to two weeks in the fridge, as long as it is stored properly. As for leaf lettuce, it can last up to four weeks.
If you time everything right, you could be eating fresh lettuce from your garden for two to three months!
Tips for a long harvest period
Planting lettuce in the right manner and harvesting it correctly can mean you have months of fresh lettuce available.
To achieve this, start by planting appropriately with the succession method. Instead of sowing all your lettuce seeds at the same time, stagger them.
The ability to employ the succession method greatly depends on your growing climate, with those living in a temperate area more able to do this. Ever week, for four weeks, plant some lettuce seeds.
The result will be lettuce ready at different times, which prolongs the harvest area.
Another tip for a long harvest period is to harvest your lettuce regularly, even if you don’t have a pressing need for it. Because lettuce keeps so long in the fridge, aim to cut the outer layers of your lettuce every week.
Your lettuce plant will keep producing more leaves, allowing you to eat more for longer.
Again, this goes back to when you first plant lettuce, but make sure it’s in a semi-shaded area. As the weather heats up in the spring, your lettuce will eventually stop growing. If it is in a shaded area, it will last longer as it will be much cooler.
Finally, remember that you can plant lettuce twice a year, in the spring and the fall. Once September hits, plant lettuce as it will grow in the cooler climate.
Just pay attention to frost dates in your area. Similar to how lettuce doesn’t like warm weather, it also doesn’t like frozen temperatures.
Lettuce is a plant that keeps on giving. When harvesting leaf lettuce, take it from the outside so the inner leaves will grow larger and be ready at a later date. For head lettuce, remove the entire plant, often including the roots, and feast on lettuce for the next few days.