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How to Pick Growing Lettuce

A collage of picking grown lettuce.

If you have put the time and effort into growing a vegetable of leafy greens, you can prolong the life of your garden by taking care to carefully pick your harvest. Knowing the right time and the right way to pick growing lettuce will help you maximize the success and length of your vegetable season. You don’t have to be too careful, but if you keep a few simple techniques in mind, you can experience great results.

To Cut or To Pick?

Two ladies growing lettuces inside a green house.

As long as your lettuce plants still have roots intact with the soil, they will continue to grow. If you cut leaves, new leaves will grow in their place. There are some gardeners who never let the sharp edge of a knife or kitchen scissors near their vegetable leaves because they feel it degrades the part of the leaf that remains.

There will be different approaches for picking lettuce based on whether it is a head variety, like iceberg, a bibb variety, like butter lettuce, or a loose-leaf variety, like red leaf lettuce. Picking throughout the growing cycle is more appropriate for bibb and loose-leaf lettuces.

Head lettuce is best left to grow until you have a nice-sized compact head to pick. You may need to pick the outer leaves if they get any mold or are over-exposed to the sun. 

You would follow the same guidelines for harvesting by hand-picking that would be appropriate for cutting. You will only want to start with the bottom, or outer, leaves of your lettuce plants. Begin with picking the outer leaves once they are mature, which is usually about eight weeks after planting seeds. 

Now that you’re ready to pick, head to your garden with a basket that you’ve lined with paper towels, and a bucket for any damaged leaves (it’s important to pick those too). Look for leaves that are four to five inches long, and once you have picked from a plant, give it a week or so to recover and produce new growth.

Place your picked leaves for the kitchen in between the paper towels so that any surface moisture is absorbed and the leaves have room to lay in the basket with enough space around them. Any damaged leaves can be immediately sent to the compost pile. 

When picking bibb lettuce varieties, you may want to pluck them before they reach full maturity and begin to flatten out. Leaves that are slightly younger have more of a cupped shape, so they are ideal for forming lettuce cups—great for holding the ingredients for Thai spiced chicken dishes or veggie tacos. 

Off With the Heads

Bibb lettuce with a plastic mulch.

Bibb lettuce also forms a loose head, so you may want to wait and harvest the full head for a crisp and sweet salad option with a velvety option. Like head varieties, it may take as long as 70 days for the heads to mature and be ready to pick. This is a great reason to practice staggered plantings.

By using a variety of different lettuce plants and planting seeds every three to five days, your plants will mature at different times. This is known as succession planting.

Get in Bed, or Go to Pot?

Lettuces grown in a large plant box.

When staggering your vegetable plantings, you can organize your lettuce by type or color so that your vegetable bed is also a feast for the eyes as it grows. As weather conditions change over the course of your warmest season, be prepared to add shade if your afternoon sun is too direct and hot.

Your vegetable bed is probably already located near a water source, and this is especially important for leaf vegetables with a high water content. Be sure you keep an eye on the soil condition and keep it sufficiently watered. 

Lettuce is also an excellent vegetable for container gardening. It doesn’t require large containers because its shallow root system means that you only need about four inches of soil depth for successful growth. Pots that are eight to 12 inches in diameter will give your lettuce plenty of space to grow sufficiently.

Containers provide the added convenience of letting you move them as needed for getting the right amount of sunshine and water, avoiding hot afternoon sun exposure, and bringing the lettuce closer to your kitchen for daily harvesting.

A Time to Harvest

A woman removing leaves of a full grown lettuce.

Once temperatures reach over 80 degrees, you run the risk of your lettuce plants bolting, which means the high heat will cause the plant to grow a flower stalk. If you see this happening, you will want to immediately harvest any mature leaves. To leave them any longer will result in leaves with a dense texture and bitter taste. 

The tighter the lettuce leaves are on each plant, the longer they will keep fresh—whether they are still in the ground awaiting harvest or stored in your refrigerator. If you plant a lot of looser leaf lettuce, pay attention to your initial planting schedule so you don’t have too many leaves maturing for harvest at the same time. 

The only way to decide what method of harvesting is right for your garden is to test it for yourself. Lettuce is an excellent vegetable to test different methods because it grows quickly and is a very desirable produce for your summer recipes. As you should do with many other leafy vegetables, devoting a little bit of time each day to this part of your garden will give you excellent vegetables for your kitchen and be a rewarding activity.