Lettuce is one of those cool weather plants from which you may collect leaves or harvest whole heads. You can even harvest lettuce as a microgreen! With all the varieties out there, it is easy for a gardener to get confused. We will provide the ultimate guide to how to harvest lettuce greens and tips on how to properly store your lettuce harvest. To learn how to grow lettuce, check out our in-depth article that’s chock-full of gardening tips on how green lettuce grows!
Planting your own lettuce is a fun way to start or end the season. They can be grown directly in the soil, in raised beds, or in small spaces like container gardens. To extend your season, consider providing a shade cover as your lettuce grows that can reduce heat exposure and delay bolting.
Keep in mind that when you are harvesting, make sure that your tools are clean and sanitized. Scissors, garden shears, a small knife, or grass shears can be used to collect your lettuce and also a basket or container to hold your crop. When you are ready to store, you will want to have paper towels and a plastic storage bag on hand.
Now let’s explore a few varieties of lettuce such as microgreens, cos, looseleaf, crisphead, butterhead, and stem lettuce.
When Should I Harvest Lettuce?
The packets that hold your lettuce seeds will provide an estimation of when to start harvesting. The recommended dates on your lettuce seeds should be used as guidelines in partnership with observation. Young baby salad greens can be harvested by the end of the first month of planting. These baby salad greens are cute, nutritious, and tender. They develop after the microgreen stage and are only a few inches tall.
Leaf lettuce and compact heads of lettuce will start to mature 6-10 weeks after sowing in your garden. Harvest leaf lettuce when it’s about 4 inches tall. The outer leaves on compact heads can be collected during the growing season before harvesting the whole head. These individual outer leaves can be ready to collect when they are 4 inches. When the entire plant has reached 6 inches, it is ready for a cut-and-come-again harvest every two weeks or so. By leaving the lettuce crown intact for this method, there is a chance that plants will continue to grow for an additional lettuce harvest. Be sure to provide lots of water for a successful regrowth!
If you are cultivating types of lettuce such as romaine, crisphead, or butterhead, you are looking for leaves to be 8 inches. Squeeze the head to check for firmness, the leaves should be compact and plump.
Many types of lettuce prefer cool weather and do not do well in hot weather. When daytime temperatures reach above 80 degrees, the lettuce will start bolting and a flower stalk will emerge. You will want to harvest your lettuce immediately if this happens. The leaves can turn bitter in taste, but a few bitter leaves can be hidden in a larger salad. Or you can let the lettuce go to seed and reseed itself in your garden.
When you grow lettuce, the best time of day to harvest lettuce is in the cool and early morning. The leaves will be fresh and crisp when the weather is cool! If harvested later in the day, your lettuce may be soft and wilted from sun exposure. Lettuce grows best when the temperatures are cooler, and is less susceptible to bolting then too.
Harvesting Lettuce By Type
There are many types of lettuce you may be gardening, such as the black seeded Simpson that is valued for its green loose leaves or headed lettuce like romaine to add a bit of crunch and texture to your salad. Some of these varieties do well in a strategic trimming of the leaves or harvesting the plant above its crown and they will continue growing. Another method of harvesting lettuce is to remove entire plants by digging them up from the soil.
Harvesting microgreens is super easy! They will be ready 10-15 days after planting the seeds when the first true leaves have emerged. If you are gauging by height, harvest the microgreens when they are 2-3 inches. It’s fun to explore the flavor profiles of the microgreens at different heights. Use a pair of scissors or grass shears and cut the entire plant ½ inch above the soil line. We have many other cool gardening tips on growing microgreens including lettuce microgreens if you need inspiration!
Cos or romaine lettuce has a desired crisp or crunch factor to its leaves. As it develops, the outer leaves of the lettuce plant can be harvested. You can cut off the leaves 1-2 inches above the soil. By harvesting these young green leaves, there is more time for the lettuce to mature for the ability to harvest entire plants.
Romaine lettuce can take 55-70 days to grow from seed before it is mature. Check the lettuce itself to confirm when it is ripe. Romaine is prepared for harvest when the lettuce leaves are 6-8 inches tall, the ribs of the lettuce are firm and juicy, and the leaves have formed a tightly-compacted head. Squeeze the lettuce head to check for firmness. Young head lettuce will be soft and overripe head lettuce will be hard. To harvest, cut 1 inch above the soil, preserving the crown for a second harvest. If its garden lifespan is close to an end, you can dig up the entire plant to harvest the lettuce head.
Loose Leaf Lettuce
There is a wide harvest window for leaf lettuce varieties. The young baby lettuce leaves can be picked for harvest 25 days after planting and the plant will reach full maturity in 50-60 days. Be sure to harvest your crop before it bolts.
Loose-leaf lettuce is great for repeated harvests, as you get multiple harvests during the season. Once the leaves are 4”, you can cut the entire lettuce 1-2” above the soil line. If the crown is left intact, new leaves will sprout from the base and can be ready to harvest again in 10-15 days. To have a continual harvest throughout the season, try multiple seed sowings and staggering the sowings. Resowing is recommended if you desire the fresh taste of the young baby greens.
There is another harvesting approach: trimming young leaves on the outside of the head for greens while allowing for the inner leaves to grow. You can start harvesting lettuce from these plants when they are 4 inches by snipping them above the soil line.
Crisphead or iceberg lettuce is absolutely delicious as homegrown salad greens. This can be a cut-and-come-again harvest but you might not get a full head of lettuce. This green lettuce is more suited for a single harvest. The harvest window is around 50-75 days after planting. Iceberg lettuce can be prepared for harvest as soon as the head develops, the center feels firm with leaves tightly compacted, and before the exterior leaves turn brown. Harvest before the crisp lettuce begins to open and the seed stalk begins forming. More importantly, harvest immediately if you notice the seed stalk or the lettuce starting to bolt, a common problem in hot weather.
The best way to harvest iceberg lettuce is to dig up the entire plant and then trim the stalk off. This lettuce plant has a thick stem and it can be difficult to harvest while it is still in the ground. Please be careful to not damage the lettuce head if you choose to harvest it while it’s in-ground. You can lift the lettuce upwards and cut the stem right below the leaves.
Butterhead lettuce is a savory and delicate salad green. It is ready to harvest as early as 45 days after seeding, with the final harvest no later than 75 days after sowing. This lettuce has its best flavor before it is fully mature. Baby butterhead lettuce can be harvested early in the season. You can routinely trim the young leaves, use a cut-and-come-again method, or thin out the garden bed by removing some of the young plants.
You are ready to harvest the whole heads of lettuce when it begins to feel firm and the leaves are 8-15 inches. There are a few methods to remove the full head of lettuce from the garden, such as cutting the stalk below the head of lettuce, or digging up the plant and cutting off the stalk. If you harvest and leave the base of the plant or stalk, lettuce may regrow and produce more leafy green goodness.
Stem or celtuce lettuce is different from the other lettuce mentioned above because it is appreciated for its stem. The leaves can be collected throughout the growing season yet the flavor may start to turn bitter as it matures. Celtuce lettuce is ready for harvest when the diameter of the stalk is 1 inch and it is 8-14 inches. Cut the stalk at the base of the plant, right above the soil line. Or you can remove the entire plant by digging it up and trimming the base and roots off. The leaves will also need to be trimmed off before storing.
How To Store Fresh Lettuce
First a few tips on properly storing lettuce. Placement in the fridge is key, most like to put their lettuce in the crisper drawer. Avoid placing it towards the back of the fridge, which may accidentally frost your crop. If the lettuce is placed next to apples, bananas, or pears, these fruits can increase rates of decomposition and your harvest may wither quickly. Lastly, you can refresh wilted lettuce by placing it in an ice bath for 15 minutes before consuming it.
Tender greens like microgreens, loose-leaf lettuce, and trimmed lettuce leaves wilt fast and are best enjoyed within 3 days of harvesting. First, wash any dirt or debris from these salad greens, then let dry on a dish towel or pat dry. Store them in the fridge in a plastic bag or container, packed in some dry paper towels (I like to use brown coffee filters) which will absorb any excess moisture and keep the lettuce from getting soggy and decaying. To extend the shelf life of your harvest, continue to check and replace the paper towels when they are saturated.
Head lettuce like cos, iceberg, and butterhead can be stored directly in the fridge without washing and can last 1-2 weeks. First, remove any dirty or damaged leaves. Wrap the head of lettuce in paper towels or dish towels and place it in a plastic storage bag or bin. Just as with the lettuce leaves, you can extend the shelf life of your lettuce by replacing the paper towels when they get wet. When you are ready to consume, then you can thoroughly wash the head of lettuce.
With stem lettuce, make sure to remove the leaves from the stem. Wash, dry, and store in the fridge in a plastic bag. They are best fresh but can last up to 1-2 weeks in the fridge.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Will lettuce regrow after cutting?
A: Not all lettuce varieties will regrow after cutting such as crisphead lettuce or stem lettuce. Butterhead, romaine, and loose-leaf lettuce are more suited for cut-and-come-again harvesting.
Q: How many times can you harvest lettuce?
A: For cut-and-come-again lettuce varieties, you can get 2-3 harvests in a good season. If you harvest the outer leaves, this can be a continual harvest!