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How and When to Pick Your Lettuce

Lettuce is a great crop for beginner or impatient gardeners, with some varieties ripening in as little as 30 days! Unlike fruits that clearly exhibit their ripeness with bright colors, lettuce ripeness is not as easily recognizable. So how can you tell when it is time to pick your lettuce, and how do you pick lettuce when there are so many different varieties? Keep reading to find out! 

Female gardener harvesting a large green head of lettuce from the garden

When should you harvest lettuce?

Lettuce is typically planted in the early spring, about 2-4 weeks before the last frost date[1], but in some climates, it can be planted in the fall as well. Most varieties of lettuce will reach maturity in around 6-8 weeks, but some can be ready to harvest in as little as 30 days[3], or whenever you see leaves big enough to eat! Or, you can even harvest immature lettuce leaves as micro-greens. That means your spring-planted lettuce will be ready to harvest later in the spring, or in the summer depending on the variety you are growing. 

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How do you harvest lettuce?

How to harvest butterhead lettuce:

The butterhead lettuce variety includes iceberg lettuce, bibb lettuce, etc. Butterhead lettuce varieties have a round shape, with loose leaves, and take between 60-70 days to fully ripen[5]. To harvest butterhead lettuce, pull the loose outer leaves away from the head, leaving the inner leaves to continue ripening. You can also remove the entire head of lettuce to enjoy by cutting it at the base with a kitchen knife. This will provide you with a variety of large and small leaves

How to harvest leaf lettuce:

Leaf lettuces have an “open growth habit, which forms loose clusters of leaves rather than a tight head”[2]. Some varieties include butter lettuce and red leaf lettuce.  Leaf lettuce varieties typically take up to 8 weeks to grow fully. You should check if your leaf lettuces are ripe after 50 or 60 days[5] from planting. Using gardening scissors, cut off the outer leaves, about 2 inches above the base of the plant. Your leaf lettuce’s smaller inner leaves will begin to mature and you can check again to harvest the now matured leaves, and so on. 

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How to harvest romaine lettuce:

Romaine lettuce is popular for its crisp texture due to its high water content. Romaine lettuce varieties grow “a tall head of sturdy dark green leaves with firm ribs down their centers”[6]. This type of lettuce takes around 50-75 days to ripen[5] and the whole head should be harvested at once. To harvest use a kitchen knife to cut the romaine head at the base. 

How can you tell when lettuce is ripe?

There are five main types of lettuce “red-leaf, green-lead, stalk, heading lettuces and romaine”[5] all of which have dozens of varieties. These diverse lettuces will grow at different speeds and may show different indicators that they are ripe, but considering the time of planting will be your best bet when deciding if your lettuce is ready to pick or not. 

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How can you tell when butterhead lettuce is ripe?

Butterhead lettuce varieties are ripe around 60-70 days after planting. The best way to determine the ripeness of your butterhead lettuce is to feel it out, literally. Your lettuce should be firm, and the head should feel full, indicating that there are plenty of immature leaves at the center. You should hold the butterhead lettuce in your hands and squeeze it to determine if it feels full and firm. The leaves will be slightly open with some space in between leaves, not densely packed together. 

How can you tell when leaf lettuce is ripe?

Leaf lettuces can be picked as early as 30 days, though leaves will be slightly smaller. Additionally, leaf lettuces can be picked even earlier as micro-greens. Leaf lettuces will typically be fully ripened 60 days after planting. When your leaf lettuce is at peak ripeness, the outer leaves will be around 4-5 inches tall[5] and will be deeply colored, with very ruffled leaves. 

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How can you tell when romaine lettuce is ripe?

Romaine lettuce is typically ready to harvest 70 days after planting[4], and considering the time of planting will be a great indicator of ripeness. But there are other signs that will let you know when it’s time to pick your romaine. When ripe, romaine varieties will “reach at least 6 inches tall and have a 3-inch wide base”[5]. The outer leaves will be darker green than those at the center and will have a rippled edge. Another great way to tell your romaine is ripe is to do the snap test. Choose an outer leave and break it off. If you hear a clear “snap” at the rib, your romaine is ready to harvest. 


Article Sources:

  1. Almanac. “Planting, Growing, and Harvesting Lettuce
  2. Delighted Cooking. “What is Leaf Lettuce
  3. Gilmour. “Growing Lush, Green, Crisp, Lettuce
  4. Hunker. “How to Know When Romaine Lettuce Is Ready to Pick
  5. SFGATE. “How to Tell When Lettuce Is Ripe
  6. Wikipedia. “Romaine Lettuce