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