How to harvest lettuce

Summer salads aren’t complete without a crisp, crunchy lettuce. Home-grown leaves from the garden are a convenient way to get the freshest flavor and texture, avoiding the wilting that store-bought lettuces suffer from. But how to harvest lettuce?

Lettuce can be harvested as a whole plant, a cut head that will regrow, or as the leaves mature in a ‘cut and come again’ method. Lettuce is best harvested in the morning when the leaves are the most crisp, & before the leaves fully mature & become bitter, & before bolting (usually over 85F).

Lettuce is an easy crop to grow, and it can be harvested in ways that mean it will continue to regrow. There are also a great number of varieties to choose from, to create salads with different flavors and go beyond the basic iceberg.

How to harvest lettuce

How to harvest lettuce

Lettuce can be harvested either by removing the whole head, or by taking leaves as they grow in a ‘cut and come again’ method.

Harvest leaves as they mature by taking them from the outside of the plant and leaving those in the center to regrow.

The whole head can be harvested either by digging out the whole plant, or by cutting the head around an inch above the soil.

Harvest lettuce either as a whole head, or in a ‘cut and come again’ method. To harvest the whole head, wait until the plant has fully grown & pull it out before too many leaves turn bitter or it begins to set seed. In the ‘cut and come again’ method, take leaves regularly as & when you need them.

Cutting the head means that the plant will sometimes grow back and you can get a second harvest.

When to harvest lettuce

When to harvest lettuce

Lettuce is best harvested first thing in the morning, when the leaves are crisp.

Harvest lettuce leaves before they are exposed to the sun and begin to lose water.

Harvest lettuce is first thing in the morning, before the leaves are exposed to the heat of the sun and begin to lose water. This ensures they are at their most crisp. Take leaves when they are fully grown, but before they mature, as older leaves start to become bitter and woody.

Lettuce leaves should be picked when they grow to a couple of inches, but need to be taken before they fully mature as they become woody and bitter.

If you are harvesting the whole head, wait until the majority of the head has full, open leaves.

How to harvest lettuce so it keeps growing

How to harvest lettuce so it keeps growing

Lettuces will keep growing if leaves are harvested from the outside, as they mature.

The younger leaves in the center will continue to grow.

Lettuce will also keep growing if the entire head is cut off above the crown.

The crown is the tightly compacted paler section of the leaves, just above the soil.

To harvest lettuce so it keeps growing, in the ‘cut and come again’ method, snap off or cut leaves from the outside of the head. The leaves in the center will continue to grow. You can also cut off the entire lettuce head and leave the plant to regrow.

You can also regrow cut lettuce heads indoors, by placing the stalk in some shallow water.

See this post for growing kale – another ‘cut and come again’ leafy green. 

How to harvest lettuce without killing the plant

How to harvest lettuce without killing the plant

To avoid killing the plant when harvesting lettuce leaves, make your cuts about one inch from the crown.

Take leaves regularly, as they mature, but don’t take too many leaves from the same plant.

To avoid killing the plant when harvesting lettuce, cut leaves around 1 inch from the crown of the plant to avoid damage. Harvest regularly–about every 10 days–but don’t take too many leaves from any one plant. If you cut the whole head off, keep the plant well watered as it regrows.

If you do cut the whole head off, make your cut about one inch above the crown, and make sure to keep the plant watered to encourage regrowth.

How to harvest romaine lettuce

How to harvest romaine lettuce

Romaine lettuce, or cos lettuce, grows in compact, tall heads.

The shape of romaine lettuce means it holds together well enough to be grilled or braised, as an alternative to eating it fresh.

Romaine lettuce grows in a compact, tall head of leaves. You can harvest the whole head after around 65-75 days, or take leaves as they mature. Harvest in the morning, and when the leaves have grown dark green and open, but before they start to turn bitter.

Romaine lettuce heads are ready to harvest after around 65-75 days, or when the leaves have turned dark green and start to open.

Romaine lettuce leaves can also be harvested as they mature in a ‘cut and come again’ method.

How to harvest leaf lettuce

How to harvest leaf lettuce

Leaf lettuce or ‘loose leaf’ lettuce grows as a very open head.

Varieties of leaf lettuce include butterhead lettuce and coral lettuce.

Leaf lettuce can be harvested as the whole head after around 60 days, or by the ‘cut and come again’ method, from as little as 25 days. Very young leaves can be picked as a ‘micro green’ as soon as they have formed into recognisable leaves.

The whole head of leaf lettuce can be harvested after around 60 days, or the leaves can be harvested as they grow.

Very young leaves can be picked to use as microgreens.

How to harvest lettuce seeds

How to harvest lettuce seeds

Lettuce is quick to set seed once temperatures get too hot, or if it gets too dry.

The lettuce plant ‘bolts’ when it sends up a tall seed stalk, as it tries to reproduce quickly before the plant dies.

Once lettuce has begun to bolt, the leaves turn bitter and become inedible.

To reduce bolting behavior, select a variety that tolerates heat, start seedlings early, use a shade cloth and keep plants well watered.

Check out the complete guide for choosing shade cloths.

Check out this post for when to transplant seedlings from a tray.

When the temperature gets too hot (>85F), lettuce starts to set seed or ‘bolt’ by sending up a tall seed stalk. Once lettuce has begun to bolt, the leaves will turn bitter & cannot be eaten. To harvest the seeds, leave them until they become dry, then collect them before they drop.

Collect seeds on a dry day that is not too windy, to avoid them getting wet or being blown away.

Hold an envelope open and run your hands along the stalk to collect the seeds quickly.

Store seeds in a dry place, and avoid any contact with soil to stop them getting moldy.

How to harvest lettuce

Conclusion

Lettuce is a summer staple, and using a ‘cut and come again’ harvesting method, or cutting the head with the crown still intact, will enable the plant to keep growing and provide more leaves.

There are a wide variety of lettuces that are not readily available in stores but can be easily grown from seed, and leaves straight from the garden are unbeatably crisp and fresh.

Try growing some this year!

About the author

Greg Volente

Greg Volente holds a Naturalist Certificate from the Morton Arboretum, worked for The Nature Conservancy leading environmental education programs and doing natural areas restoration, and worked in the soil science research & testing lab at Michigan State University. Besides gardening, he's an avid wildflower enthusiast, and loves botanizing, hiking, and backpacking.