How to Grow and Harvest Lettuce at Home
Experts weigh-in on when and how to pick your salad greens from your vegetable garden.
Growing lettuce in the garden can be a rewarding experience. After all, it's easy to grow (even from seed), and if staggered correctly during planting time, you can harvest fresh, leafy greens all season long. Getting those leaves from the garden to your plate is a fairly easy process, but once armed with expert tips, growing and harvesting your own lettuce will be a breeze.
Why You Should Grow Lettuce
There are plenty of reasons to plant lettuce in your vegetable garden, according to Vernic Popat, the CFO of PlantOGram.com "Homegrown is not only fun but tastes a lot better because you grew it," she says. Plus, growing your own supply of salad greens means that you will always have fresh options whenever you want them; everything from the handful of leaves you use to top your hamburger or the salad you drizzle with dressing for lunch will always be fresh and nutrient rich.
Choosing a Variety
Lettuce comes in many forms, according to Adrienne R. Roethling, director of curation and mission delivery at Paul J. Ciener Botanical Garden, such as head, loose-leaf, and a variety of colors like red and green. "Most lettuce prefer growing in cooler climates while a handful will continue through the summer months," she explains. "But all loose-leaf lettuce will continue producing after each harvest." To figure out which type of lettuce you should grow, consider your climate, growing conditions, and taste preferences. Leafier and darker lettuces like spinach varieties may have a more bitter taste, whereas romaine and iceberg varieties are more likely to be crisp and light in flavor. Just remember, head lettuce (like iceberg) is "one and done." Meaning you'll only get one harvest from it.
Lettuce plants will do well in containers, raised beds in the field, and more, explains Roethling. But leaf lettuce will do better on smaller patios and balconies, and in window gardens.
The Best Time to Harvest
The best time to harvest lettuce is when it's full size, but just before maturity. "The young, tender leaves taste better when harvested," Popat explains. To make sure you're neither over harvesting or waiting too long to bring your lettuce indoors, she suggests taking a little from each plant at a time. "You can harvest leaves from the outer leaves so that the center leaves will continue to grow." And make sure you're watering them enough during harvest periods. "Plants will quickly re-sprout leaves with ample moisture," says Roethling. Which means with the right conditions you can keep your lettuce plentiful over multiple harvests.
Keeping Lettuce Fresh
There are few things as disappointing as throwing away uneaten produce that has spoiled. To avoid having to toss your unused lettuce, Popat suggests waiting to rinse your lettuce until you're ready to eat it. "When storing it treat your leaves like fresh cut flowers," she says. "I like to use a cute glass pitcher that I fill with water, cut the ends off of the lettuce, place them in the pitcher, and display the beauty before eating!"