Even if you are not a gardener, have a small garden or just have a balcony, you can easily grow tender and fresh lettuce. Read through this guide with tips for harvesting leaf lettuce including how-to plant, grow and care for it.
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How to grow leaf lettuce
This year was my first time ever growing lettuce and it was a win experience. I was inspired by a friend last summer who had a planter of lettuce on her deck with several plants. I made a mental note to give it a try.
This spring, I purchased a package of lettuce seeds with the intent of growing in a container. Loose leaf lettuces are better for containers than head lettuce, so that is what you should look for if you want to give it a try. Seeds labeled, “cut and come again” will give repeat harvests. I picked up Burpee City Garden Blend, a mix of red lettuce and green lettuce.
You can grow leaf lettuce in a pot as small as 12-inch diameter. I had a plant stand in the shed so I used that. To hold the soil in, I had to line it with heavy plastic and poke holes for water drainage.
My container measures 20-inches wide. A 12-inch container can hold about 5 plants. Since lettuce roots are shallow, they don’t need deep soil. They do best in a container that is wide and shallow. Be sure the pot has adequate drainage holes in the bottom and it should be at least 6 inches deep.
Tips for growing leaf lettuce
- After the danger of a heavy frost is past, sow the seeds 4-6-inches apart in a good quality potting mix. Professional soil mix is formulated to hold water and provide nutrients. Cover seed with 1/4-inch of soil.
- Water thoroughly and check daily to be sure the soil doesn’t dry out. Lettuce has shallow roots and responds best to consistent, shallow watering.
- In 28 to 40 days the lettuce will be ready for harvesting.
- If you live where the days get really hot, move the pot to a place where it will receive less sun to protect it from mid-morning to late evening direct sunlight.
When to harvest lettuce
For sweeter, crisper lettuce, harvest early in the morning before the sun gets too hot. The leaves will be a little wilted and more bitter if picked in the heat of the day.
You can begin harvesting when the leaves are 6-12 inches tall. It is best to harvest little and often by using a sharp knife or scissors to cut away the largest leaves every few days. This will stimulate replacements.
Bolting and Succession planting
Because lettuce is a cool-season crop, it will want to bolt as the temperature rises and the days become longer.
Bolting means that the plant will send up a flower stalk and go to seed. Vegetables grown for their leaves, such as lettuce, turn bitter and the leaves get smaller, tougher and inedible when they bolt.
You can reap a harvest over a longer period if you do several plantings. The lettuce will continue to grow and provide leaves for harvest for a couple of months. So replanting at 2 to 4-week intervals you should have continuous lettuce to harvest. Lettuce can tolerate a light frost so you can sow up to 4 weeks before the first frost.
Collecting lettuce seeds
Saving seeds from your lettuce plant is an economical way to propagate next year’s crop. Over time, seeds saved from your garden adapt to their particular growing conditions making your seeds even more suitable to your garden.
When the lettuce plant bolts and goes to seed, it looks lanky and unattractive. It will send up a flower stalk with blooms that resemble dandelions.
After a bolt and the flower heads are fluffy and dry, it’s time to harvest the seeds. When most of the seed heads look ready to harvest, remove the entire flower stalk, and shake it over a bucket or bag to dislodge any fully-ripened seed.
Remove the fluff and chaff
You will notice mixed in with the seeds, fluff and chaff. To separate the seeds, pour them onto a shallow dish or tray and gently blow away the chaff.
When you are sure your seeds are completely dry, pour them into a paper envelope. I like to place the seed packets in an airtight jar or plastic storage bag. Store seeds in a cool, dry place.
How to harvest lettuce
Being careful not to disturb the roots. Pick the leaves regularly so the plants don’t bolt. Use your fingers or gardening clippers to carefully break leaves from the plant.
Don’t they look lovely!
Gently wash the lettuce leaves under cold, running water to remove dirt and bugs that may have accumulated.
Allow the excess water to drain off.
Drying the lettuce
Add the lettuce to you salad spinner and spin to dry leaves.
Or, if you don’t have a spinner, just place the leaves on cloth towel or paper towels and allow to dry.
Now you are ready to make your salad. Toss in whatever your heart desires. This salad includes items found in the veggie drawer of my fridge. Thinly cut summer zucchini, tiny cherry tomatoes, carrot ribbons and then topped with feta cheese crumbles.
Add the lettuce leaves to BLT’s, burgers, use in stir-fry recipes or juice it with fruit to make smoothies.
Harvesting Leaf Lettuce
- In the early morning or later evening, remove leaves from the outside of the plant being careful not to pull on the roots. You can harvest leaves when they are 6 to 12-inches tall.
- Rinse gently under cold running water to remove any dirt or bugs that may have collected.
- Place in a salad spinner or on towels and allow to dry.
Storing leaf lettuce
Store the leaf lettuce, loosely in a plastic storage bag. Good air circulation and a small amount of moisture will keep your lettuce crisp and fresh. You can also line a sturdy glass or plastic container with a few paper towels, then scatter your greens on top. Cover with a matching lid and refrigerate.
You can store your lettuce in the fridge this way for three to five days. Rewet the paper towels if they dry out but squeeze out excess water. The towels only need to be damp, not soaking.
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