Why is My Lettuce Bolting?
Bolting causes lettuce to turn bitter and tough. If you’re tired of your lettuce going to seed prematurely, you’ll be glad to know there are many ways to prevent it. In this article, former organic vegetable farmer Logan Hailey provides a wealth of secrets for preventing bolting.
You worked so hard to seed, plant, water, and tend your lettuce patch, only to find that your tender lettuce has suddenly spiraled upward into a weird cone shape. Once lettuce plants “bolt” or go to seed, they become practically inedible. Bolting lettuce is a major problem for any salad lover because the leaves turn bitter and tough, and the plant begins channeling its energy into flower and seed production rather than tasty leaves.
The bad news is you can’t reverse bolting once it starts. But the good news is that bolting is completely preventable, and you can use many garden hacks to prolong your lettuce harvests and prevent plants from going to seed. Let’s dig into the top 10 causes and solutions for bolting lettuce.
What is Bolting?
Bolting is gardener jargon for “going to seed.” When a plant bolts, it elongates its form, sending up a tall central stalk that “bolts” toward the sky and develops flowers. Those flowers eventually turn to seeds, pulling the plant’s energy away from root or leaf production.
This is bad news for vegetable growers because many of our favorite crops, like lettuce, kale, radishes, carrots, spinach, and chard, become inedible after bolting. It’s not that they are dangerous, but rather that the leaves and roots change form and often become bitter or tough once seed production begins.
Bolting likely signals that your crop is going to die. While perennial plants produce flowers and seeds throughout their lifecycle, annual and biennial plants expire after reproduction. Most garden vegetables are annuals or biennials that naturally end their lifecycle after one or two seasons. Some species have inherently shorter lifespans, while others are cut short by environmental factors.
A plant may also go to seed due to drought, transplant shock, pests, diseases, crowded spacing, and other forms of plant stress. A severely stressed plant essentially says, “Oh no! I will die soon, so I must make as many babies as possible to prolong my species.” In a last-ditch effort at reproduction, a stressed crop will bolt.
Vegetative vs. Reproductive Growth
Like humans, plants have two major life phases. First, they grow and develop their bodily systems, then switch to reproductive mode. In flowering plants, these are called the vegetative and flowering phases.
During vegetative growth, plants devote energy to developing their roots, stems, and leaves. When the day length switches, photoperiod-sensitive plants (like lettuce) switch their energy to fuel flower and seed growth. The shift from vegetative to reproductive growth typically correlates with an elongated shape and more bitter leaves.
Gardeners can see the shift to reproductive mode as it happens. In heading lettuce, the outer leaves will start to unfold, and the center of the head will produce a flowering stalk. In leaf lettuce, the flowering stalk causes the whole plant to get taller. Leaf production halts in both instances, and the remaining leaves take on a bitter taste, signifying the hormonal shift in the plant’s tissues.
How Do I Keep My Lettuce From Bolting?
Bolted lettuce is easy to prevent but difficult to stop. The easiest prevention is to grow lettuce in the cooler shoulder seasons of spring and fall. If you want to grow leafy greens in the summer heat, select bolt-resistant seed varieties, use shade cloth or row cover, practice companion planting, and harvest the crops young.
Lettuce most commonly bolts due to big temperature fluctuations (particularly heat waves) and a change in day length (longer days signal to the plant that it’s time to reproduce). To completely avoid bolting problems, it is crucial to provide plants with adequate water, nutrients, spacing, and protection from stressors like pests or diseases.
Stressed lettuce plants are more likely to bolt under almost all circumstances. Reducing plant stress is key. Modern bolt-resistant seed varieties also make it easier to extend your lettuce harvests.
10 Causes for Lettuce Bolting
It is very frustrating when your lettuce starts to bolt prematurely. The sudden growth of a tall flowering stalk causes the previously juicy, refreshing greens to turn bitter and tough. Here are ten potential causes for bolted lettuce and how to fix them for more successful future crops.
1. Temperature Fluctuations
Lettuce is a cool weather crop that enjoys the chill of spring or fall. When temperatures climb above 75°F, the plants will likely become stressed and go to seed.
These tender salad greens are also sensitive to big temperature dips. While lettuce enjoys chilly weather, it cannot handle sudden cold snaps.
The Solution: Use a row cover in cold weather and shade cloth in hot weather. These agricultural fabrics help moderate the temperature close to the ground, creating a more consistent microclimate that buffers your lettuce against weather extremes. You can install metal wire hoops over your lettuce beds or simply “float” the fabric on top of the greens.
As a bonus, many row covers and shade cloths dual-function as insect netting. They physically exclude pests from the tender leaves, making your pest control efforts far easier. Be sure to securely anchor the fabric in place with sandbags or smooth stones that won’t rip the materials.
2. Long Day Length
Lettuce is a long-day plant that enters its bloom cycle when it receives more than 12 hours of sunlight. Recall that the crucial process of photosynthesis requires sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide to create energy for plant growth. The amount of sunlight directly impacts how the plant responds to its environment and grows in different phases of its life.
Photoperiod sensitivity affects how a plant responds to darkness or light. This tendency is hard-wired into a species’ genetics. Botanists used to think that the length of the daylight determined when a plant would form flowers, but modern scientific experiments have proven that the length of darkness is actually the greatest determinant of plant flowering.
In the case of lettuce, the plants stay in their vegetative (leaf-producing) state when they receive more than 12 hours of darkness. Seasonally, this happens in the spring and fall in the northern hemisphere. But when the summer days begin to get longer, the shorter nights signal to the plant that it is time to reproduce, so it sends up a flower stalk to initiate pollination and funnel its energy toward seed production.
From the plant’s perspective, it does exactly what it was designed to do: survive and reproduce. But from a gardener’s perspective, this frustrating shift means we won’t get to enjoy summer salads. You can’t change the amount of sunlight, but you can use shade cloth to alter the amount of light the plant receives.
The Solution: Use shade cloth and grow bolt-resistant varieties like ‘Vivian’ or ‘Great Lakes 118’ that naturally withstand the summer shift in day length. In catalogs, these seeds are often labeled as “bolt-resistant,” “heat tolerant,” or “summer lettuce.”
Plant breeders have found ways to reduce lettuce photoperiod sensitivity through hybridization and traditional breeding. Rest assured, bolt-resistant cultivars are non-GMO; they are NOT genetically modified. Rather, they are crossed and selected for traits that prevent premature flowering.
3. Transplant Shock
If your lettuce bolts while the plants are still very young, it is probably due to transplanting stress. Transplant shock is a common cause of bolting because plants are suddenly exposed to harsher weather, more intense sunlight, less water, and overall rougher conditions compared to what they experienced while in seed trays.
If you think about a baby suddenly being thrust from its crib out into the great big world, you can see why change is so intense and rough on a young plant. Even adults get sick when moving from drastically different locations, like from a warm beach to a frigid mountaintop.
Without a proper adjustment period, baby lettuce may panic and think it will die. In its final effort to achieve its sole life purpose (reproduction!), the tiny lettuce plant sends up a stalk and funnels all of its remaining energy into producing seeds.
The Solution: Thoroughly harden off your seedlings before transplanting. This allows them to slowly acclimate to outdoor conditions, reducing the sudden temperature swings they may experience when moved from a nursery or windowsill into the garden. To harden off, begin by placing seedlings outdoors in a protected area like a patio or porch for 8-10 hours per day. Bring them inside on the first few nights, then let them stay outdoors overnight for about a week. You can slowly cut back on water, but not so much that the plants dry out.
When it’s time to transplant, use a row cover or cold frame to protect seedlings from the chilly nights of early spring. Anything you can do to buffer them from temperature extremes, the better.
When planting, minimize root disturbance by handling the babies carefully. Avoid smushing or compressing the fragile roots, as this can cause more shock and lead to bolting.
Diluted kelp solution is shown to improve root establishment and prevent shock. Maintaining consistent moisture is crucial in the early stages to ensure the seedlings can anchor roots in their new home. You can also use row covers to moderate the temperature.
4. Crowded Planting
Nobody likes to be crammed together in a small space, and your lettuce plants are no different. The stress and resource competition from overcrowded plantings cause lettuce to go to seed prematurely. Planting too close together can also cause airflow and disease problems.
Growing more seedlings in a space may seem to yield more crops, but this misconception can work against you. More plants in a smaller space hinder the growth of all the plants in the bed, reducing your overall yields.
If you don’t thin your seedlings or properly space your transplants, the lettuce may bolt at a very young age because it thinks it has reached the end of its life cycle due to environmental stress.
The Solution: Follow the recommended spacing for your variety- usually at least 6” between plants for small heads and 8-12” for larger head lettuce. If direct seeding, thin a few days after germination to ensure the seedlings can get a strong start to life.
5. Stress From Pests and Diseases
The clear theme here is that stress causes bolting. These plants are genetically coded to go to seed whenever external factors trigger that their lifespan is over. Not only do pests and diseases cause unsightly, damaged plants, but they can also push lettuce to bolt.
The Solution: Carefully monitor your crops, especially during the early weeks of establishment. A 5-minute evening walk around the garden will help you stay in tune with your vegetables and catch any issues early. Lettuce often gets attacked by aphids and flea beetles. Both can be removed with a blast of water or diluted neem solution.
Companion planting is a great way to attract beneficial insect predators to the garden. Great lettuce companions include white alyssum, marigolds, onions, and scallions. Plant these on the borders or ends of your beds to repel pests and attract beneficials.
Disease problems can be prevented by maintaining adequate spacing (to encourage airflow) and watering with drip irrigation or soaker hoses. Avoid overhead irrigation that may soak lettuce leaves and welcome mold or mildew. Keep your garden beds well-amended with microbially rich compost. The beneficial microorganisms act like an immune system for your plants, preventing pathogenic fungi or bacteria from colonizing the roots or leaves.
Overall, a healthier plant is more resilient to pests and diseases and less likely to bolt. Add lots of rich organic matter to your soil, maintain consistent moisture, and fertilize with a quality organic slow-release fertilizer at the time of planting.
6. Too Much Sunlight
Lettuce is a great crop for partially shaded gardens. They still need plenty of light to thrive and produce vibrant green (or red or speckled) leaves, so don’t plant lettuce in a completely shaded area. Somewhere with 6-8 hours of direct sun is great. My favorite place for lettuce is on the east or west side of the garden or anywhere with dappled sunlight.
Remember, too much shade can also cause stress and bolting. Slow, leggy growth and pale leaves are common in lettuce plants that aren’t getting enough sunlight. They still need plenty of UV rays to maximize photosynthesis and produce healthy leaf growth that will resist bolting.
The Solution: Plant your lettuce in a partially shaded area of the garden. These greens do best with bright morning sun and partial shade in the heat of the afternoon. I love companion planting lettuce near the canopy of tall-growing crops like tomatoes or trellised cucumbers. However, you should plant the lettuce at least 8-12” from the base of the larger crop to ensure it still has access to some sunlight.
You can also use shade cloth to protect lettuce from intense summer sunshine. Remember the day length sensitivity? Lettuce is a long-day plant, meaning it tends to bolt when it receives more than 12 hours of direct sunlight. If you can reduce how much light lettuce receives during the summer, you prevent it from going to seed as quickly.
7. Poorly Timed Harvest
Sometimes, gardeners wait too long to pick their lettuce. If your plants grew super large and then bolted, you probably just missed the harvest window. This is a true annual plant that won’t last forever in the garden.
You can prolong the harvest by using the “cut and come again” harvest technique or cutting just the lower leaves. If a plant starts to elongate upward slightly, it’s planning to bolt. You should have a few days to harvest it while the leaves are still tasty. Unfortunately, once it goes to seed, that ship has sailed! Pull the plant and start another succession.
The Solution: Check the days to maturity (DTM) on your seed packets. Mark on your calendar when you seed the crop, then count forward to remind yourself when it will be ready. The window of maturity can be several weeks long, but it helps to have a heads-up. More importantly, you should be checking your lettuce regularly.
You can also “cut and come again” by harvesting the outer leaves or cutting the top of the plant in a dome-like shape, leaving the central growing tip intact. The plant will regenerate within a couple of weeks. This is great for a continuous harvest of salads.
If you are growing head lettuce, check the variety’s typical harvest size. Many romaines grow up to 10” tall and 4” wide, while some baby lettuce heads are bred to be harvested at a micro 6” diameter. Instead of cutting whole rows at once, I like to harvest in an alternating pattern, leaving every other plant in place to grow a little larger the following week. Lettuce can technically be eaten at any growth stage, but you definitely want to catch it before it bolts, or the greens will turn bitter and gross.
8. Water Stress
Drought can quickly send your lettuce crop to seed. The stress of low water signals to the plant that its season is ending and it’s time to reproduce before it dies. Premature flowering is very common for many veggies facing drought conditions.
The Solution: The succulent, juicy leaves of lettuce unsurprisingly require a fair amount of water. This thirsty, shallow-rooted prefers consistently moist soil. First, be sure your soil is generously amended with compost and organic matter. This helps retain moisture longer, so you don’t have to irrigate as often.
Next, install drip lines or soaker hoses in your lettuce bed immediately after planting. These irrigation lines will supply water straight to the root zone of the plants without causing any disease issues on the leaves.
Avoid overhead irrigation if you can. Check the soil every 2-3 days during hot weather. Always stick your finger several inches in the soil to gauge the moisture level. If your skin comes out clean, it’s too dry.
Lastly, mulch is your best insurance policy against water stress and bolting. It not only retains moisture in the root zone, but it keeps the soil temperature cooler in hot weather. Shredded straw or leaf mulch are great for tucking around your low-growing leafy greens.
9. Varietal Choice
A spring butterhead cultivar will usually bolt if you plant it in June. Similarly, a cold-loving romaine will struggle in summer weather. However, heat-resistant and bolt-resistant leaf lettuce, like ‘Ezrilla,’ can tolerate greater temperature fluctuations. Finding the perfect variety takes experimentation, but it helps to read your seed catalog carefully before ordering.
Vegetables are bred for specific culinary uses and seasonal plantings. Some lettuces weren’t intended for southern climates, hot summers, or super cold conditions. If you face specific weather patterns, always look for varieties suited to those conditions.
The Solution: Purchase seeds labeled for your particular conditions. If you want to try your hand at summer lettuce, always choose bolt-resistant varieties and use the above tactics, like shade cloth, companion planting, and “cut and come again” harvests to prevent it from going to seed too soon.
10. Wrong Season
Clearly, lettuce likes mild, cool weather. If you are really tired of dealing with bolted plants, avoid growing lettuce in the summertime. Gardening becomes a lot easier when you stop fighting with the natural flow of things. If a crop continuously goes to flower or fails completely, it’s a sign that it may be best grown in a different season or area of the garden.
The Solution: Choose heat-tolerant greens for summer salads, such as Malabar spinach, orach, purslane, or chard. These crops are naturally resilient in hot weather and far less likely to flower in the bright sun.
Resume your lettuce plantings in late summer when the nights begin to cool. Alternatively, you can grow lettuce in a container on your windowsill.
The overall theme is clear: These plants naturally bolt when they get a lot of summer sunshine and heat because the conditions signal to the plant that its life cycle is ending. When lettuce encounters intense sunshine, extreme temperatures, overcrowded spacing, or any other stressors, it will go to flower.
The best way to prevent bolting is to:
- Grow lettuce in cool weather
- Use shade cloth in hot weather
- Choose bolt-resistant varieties
- Ensure proper spacing (don’t overcrowd)
- Provide consistent water
- Harvest at the right time (don’t wait too long)
- Prevent pests and diseases
- Companion plant beneath taller crops like tomatoes