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Harvesting Leaf Lettuce: How to Make Yours Produce for Weeks (or Months)

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If harvesting lettuce is in your near future — especially if you’re growing lettuce for the first time — it’s time for us to talk about how to harvest lettuce and when to harvest lettuce. You know how when you go to the store you can choose a head of romaine or butter lettuce? Put that notion right out of your head.

green lettuce with purple highlights, growing in a shade garden

Now that you’re growing your own lettuce, you want that work to pay off. What happens when you pull a head of lettuce from the ground roots and all? You eat a salad, sure. But more importantly, that particular lettuce plant has come to the end of the road. It will no longer provide lovely greens for your family.

When to harvest lettuce

It’s a good idea to make a note on your calendar when your lettuce is expected to mature. To do this, check the seed packet for ‘days to maturity’ and do some calculating. Lettuce can take 65-100 days or so to reach maturity, depending on the variety that you tuck into your garden bed.

Head lettuce grows like the iceberg lettuce you see in the supermarket — you’ll know when to harvest it based on the size and shape of the head. It should be firm, with a well-shaped head. It’s harvested by cutting the head off the stalk.

I prefer to grow leaf lettuce though, because that window of when to harvest lettuce is so much wider. And knowing how to harvest lettuce will help that crop produce for weeks.

salad greens growing in containers hanging against a green wall

Related: Growing Lettuce in Containers to Eliminate Pests

Instead of cutting the head from the stalk as you do when harvesting head lettuce (thus ending the fresh salads), you can harvest leaf lettuce varieties a leaf at a time.

When to harvest lettuce this way? As soon as the lettuce leaves reach a couple of inches in length, you can begin harvesting “baby lettuce.”

To harvest individual leaves, use scissors to cut off the outer leaves near the base of the plant. Leave the inner leaves intact and the entire lettuce plant will continue to grow. Harvesting loose leaf lettuces this way allows the plant to continue growing and producing leaves, providing you with fresh lettuce for months rather than for a single meal.

frilly bright salad greens growing in a garden

Leaf lettuce will continue to produce new leaves until the plant begins to flower and produce lettuce seeds. (When you see this happening — a sturdier stalk will emerge from the center of the plant — stop harvesting. Lettuce becomes bitter at the end of its growing season.) Unless you’re aiming for beautiful heads, use the cut and come again method to harvest your crop.

Related: Partial Shade Vegetables for a Successful Harvest

Before and after image of red and green leaf lettuce in concrete blocks. Showing how to harvest lettuce

Related: Growing lettuce in an indoor winter garden

The photo on the left (above) is what my lettuce looked like before a harvest. The photo on the right is after harvesting. Within a week, it will look like that first picture again. I snipped off those lovely outer leaves, made a beautiful salad from that loose leaf lettuce, and those same plants will feed us again soon.

This is a great method for harvesting lettuce for anyone who puts work into a garden (might as well get the most bang for your buck, right?) but it’s an especially good tip for urban gardeners who don’t have a lot of space. Make those container gardens work for you!

Embrace succession planting

While you can extend the life of each lettuce plant by harvesting in this manner, another way to be sure to have lettuce as long as possible is to embrace succession planting. Instead of planting just once, stagger plantings so that you’ll have crops maturing every two to three weeks across the growing season. That way, as one batch of plants comes to the end of their lives, new heads will be ready to harvest. I suggest setting a reminder to plant more lettuce — if you’re like me, you’ll forget! You can read more about the concept of succession planting here.

Keep in mind that lettuce grows best in cool weather. Plan to grow salad greens during the spring and again in the fall if you live in a region with hot summers.

green lettuce with red highlights growing in a garden

This post was originally published in April 2012; it has been updated.

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Meet the Author

Kris Bordessa

Kris Bordessa founded Attainable Sustainable as a resource for revitalizing vintage skills. Her book, Attainable Sustainable: The Lost Art of Self-Reliant Living (National Geographic) offers a collection of projects and recipes to help readers who are working their way to a more fulfilling DIY lifestyle.

32 comments… add one
  • Angie Abella Apr 28, 2012, 4:52 pm

    already eating black simpson lettuce!

  • Denise DerGarabedian Apr 28, 2012, 4:53 pm

    i am cutting the bottom pieces off several of my lettuces each day and it’s enough for two of us to feast on 🙂

  • Healthy Stepping Stones Apr 28, 2012, 4:53 pm

    can’t wait for mine to start producing…

  • Tina Crawford-Shellkopf Apr 28, 2012, 4:53 pm

    I bought 4 different lettuces, when i used them I cut the bottoms off and put them in a bowl with water and they sprouted new leaves. My daughter loves them and calls it “paper lettuce” because it is so thin.

  • vollmerdp Apr 28, 2012, 5:34 pm

    Most-excellent tip.  I had the best time harvesting lettuce like this when we lived in Nebraska.  It’s tougher to grow lettuce here in Florida — although I’d guess your climate is similar enough to ours.  What kind of seeds are you sowing?  Maybe it isn’t too late for me…

    • Attainable Sustainable Apr 30, 2012, 7:41 am

       @vollmerdp Our climates my not be too similar. I’m in a cooler region of Hawaii – temps have been in the 70s all month (low to mid, mostly). I’m growing red oak leaf, baby romaine, and butter crunch, all from Seeds of Change. Have you tried a shady spot, in containers?

  • April Stephens Apr 28, 2012, 9:19 pm

    I harvest my loose leaf lettuces all summer as well as swiss chard and kale. Unfortunately i live in ohio so i wont get the first lettuce until june : ( I envy folks with 2 or more growing seasons

  • SoniaR Apr 29, 2012, 7:47 am

    That is how I harvest ours also…for some reason, I haven’t been able to grow head lettuce and this way works great for us.  the plants continue giving until they are exhausted 😉

  • Claudine Anne McCormack Jalajas Apr 29, 2012, 3:42 pm

    I never have luck with lettuce. Well, I do..but the bugs get there before me. 🙁

    • Bonnie May 19, 2020, 4:58 pm

      I’ve had better luck with raised planting because I think it keeps the bugs out. I place a sheet of plywood across two sawhorses and place bags of soil on top flat. Then I just cut a big opening in the bag to plant my seeds into the dirt. Keeps the lettuce “cleaner” too.

      • Vintage Soul May 31, 2020, 2:19 am

        WOW! I never would have of that! So simple! Thanks for the tip!

  • Mommafrogg Apr 30, 2012, 10:25 am

    Found it interesting that you planted in cement block.

    • Attainable Sustainable Apr 30, 2012, 10:27 am

       @Mommafrogg The cement block is a temporary raised bed and I figured it would be silly to waste the space inside the blocks! It’s actually worked really well for the lettuce. 

  • kimberriddell Apr 30, 2012, 10:57 am

    RT @eartheats Harvesting lettuce: Use scissors to cut off the outer leaves near base, leave the inner leaves intact https://t.co/5aMgx7Lz

  • graceonline Apr 30, 2012, 3:43 pm

    @eartheats Good advice to every gardener!

  • Attainable Sustainable May 2, 2012, 9:25 am

    Claudine Anne McCormack Jalajas: Have you tried growing your lettuce in containers or hanging baskets? It does deter some pests.

  • Janet Collester May 27, 2012, 10:29 am

    I just love the salad plants grown in pots and used as you need them. They are so happy on a sunny windowsill.

  • Denise Montague May 27, 2012, 10:30 am

    Thank you so much!

  • Sheryl May 29, 2012, 9:52 am

    I’m one of those people who oh and aah at the beautiful greens at farmer’s markets (rarely are they that admirable on store shelves). Your photos are worth ooh-ing over. I’ll bet the lettuce is fresh and delicious!

  • DCBloom May 14, 2015, 7:13 am

    I used to do that as well, but there is a catch. After a few pickings, the lettuce will get bitter. Here’s how I do it. I buy little 4 packs of seedlings from the nursery. About 2 weeks later I buy another, then another… When the first round gets big enough, I do as you do and pick the outside leaves, then move on to the next round. Eventually, when I get to the third round or so, I just pick the whole head, because by the 4th picking it just doesn’t taste good anymore. Besides, by that point it’s too hot for lettuce in my zone (7) anyway,

    I do this with all my spring greens, although collards, kale and spinach don’t get bitter no matter how often you pick it down.

  • Pamela May 20, 2016, 4:28 am

    Last fall I started two planters with mixed lettuce. I seeded them two weeks apart. I had salad greens all winter from my kitchen window, and reseeded in late January. I have been able to have small lettuce leaves all winter, mostly for sandwiches. I use arugula in stir-fry adding them after I turn off the heat and just let them wilt slightly. I also had red Swiss chard, basil, oregano, chives, and cilantro, but not as much. I can usually harvest all of them over two months by using only a few leaves at a time. I live in eastern Utah.

    • Kris Bordessa May 20, 2016, 6:28 am

      Yes! With a little effort you can grow greens inside, all year long. Good for you!

  • Rena Jun 18, 2016, 11:57 am

    We cut the whole plant leaving about 2″ instead of just the outer leaves. Yup in a week it’s ready again.

    • ARC May 9, 2017, 1:13 pm

      This is what I do also. Just snip it off and it will regrow. Easier and faster than choosing leaves.

  • Correna Jun 19, 2016, 8:23 pm

    What is the controversy about cement blocks…I’m lost on that one.

  • Jezme Jul 3, 2016, 11:11 am

    Friends gave ius perennial lettuce plants that are somewhere between a loose leaf and romaine-type head lettuce. The lettuce is sweet and crunchy, but tender.We have just left them go into seed and I am missing it already! We also gave some plants to friends. Sorry, but I have no idea where you could get them or even what the variety is called. : (

  • Elaine Matthews Feb 13, 2017, 11:14 pm

    I do the same thing when growing Romaine lettuce— works great!! Thanks for your article! NOTHING tastes better than fresh!

  • Nan Apr 1, 2017, 9:11 am

    Here in zone 5, I Had my first harvest of Simpson lettuce, & spinach last week from my cold frames.

  • Joseva Thistle Jul 5, 2018, 2:30 pm

    Made my first salad with my lettuce today

    • Kris Bordessa Jul 5, 2018, 4:15 pm

      Awesome!!!

  • Eva Scott Jun 13, 2020, 4:09 am

    Thank You!!! Harvesting lettuce information has been so helpful to us in our garden thank you again

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