Many first-time gardeners think that once the loose-leaf lettuce is picked, that’s it. That’s because they tend to think that the entire head of lettuce should be dug out when harvesting leaf lettuce. Not so my friends. Picking loose-leaf lettuce with the “cut and come again” method will extend the growing period and provide you with greens well into the summer months. Read on to find out how to harvest leaf lettuce using this method.
When to Pick Leaf Lettuce
Lettuce is a cool-weather crop and, although it needs sun, is one of the few crops that will do well in partial shade. Unlike lettuces such as iceberg, loose-leaf lettuce doesn’t form a head but, instead, loose leaves. This means that while the entire head of iceberg is harvested, picking loose-leaf lettuce is just that – picking leaves.
So when to pick leaf lettuce? Loose-leaf lettuce harvest can begin anytime the leaves have formed but prior to the formation of a seed stalk.
How to Harvest Leaf Lettuce
To grow lettuce with the “cut and come again method,” it is best to start with loose leaf varieties like mesclun in a variety of colors, flavors, and textures. The beauty of planting loose-leaf varieties is twofold. The plants can be spaced much closer together in the garden (4-6 inches (10-15 cm.)) than head lettuce, meaning no thinning needed and garden space is maximized. Also, you can plant each week or every other week to get a continuous revolving leaf lettuce harvest.
Once leaves begin to appear and they are about 4 inches (10 cm.) long, you can begin harvesting leaf lettuce. Simply snip either single outer leaves or grab a bunch of them and cut them with shears or scissors an inch (2.5 cm.) above the crown of the plant. If you cut into or below the crown, the plant will probably die, so be careful.
Again, leaf lettuce may be picked any time after leaves form, but before the plant bolts (forms seed stalk). Older leaves are often stripped off the plants first, allowing the young leaves to continue to grow.
Ideally, for a “cut and come again” lettuce garden, you will have multiple rows of lettuce growing. Some at the same stage of maturity and some a week or two behind. This way you can have a revolving supply of greens. Harvest from different rows each time you pick lettuce to allow those that have been picked to regrow, about two weeks post-harvest for most varieties.
To protect the leaf lettuce, cover the rows with shade cloth or row covers to slow their bolting tendency in hot weather. If they do bolt, it’s likely too warm to grow leaf lettuce. Wait until fall and then plant another crop. This fall crop can be protected under row cover or low tunnels to extend the leaf lettuce harvest into the cooler weather. By using this method for harvesting lettuce and by planting successive crops, you can have fresh salad green for most of the year.
Lettuce can be stored for 1-2 weeks if refrigerated.