Growing lettuce (Lactuca sativa) in your garden means you can have the freshest leaves for perfectly crisp salads. To enjoy the best-tasting fruits of your labors, it all comes down to picking the lettuce leaves at the right time and storing the lettuce correctly after you've harvested it.
Check Your Calendar
How long it is since you sowed the seeds provides a quick way to estimate when lettuce should be ready for harvesting.
- A crisphead lettuce variety, which grows into a hard, tight head of leaves, is ready for harvesting approximately 75 days after planting.
- As their name implies, loose-leaf lettuces don't form a head and are ready in as little as 45 days.
- Butterhead varieties, which soft heads of loose leaves, are ready in 55 to 75 days.
- Romaine varieties grow into tall, cylindrical heads of folded leaves and take approximately 70 days to mature.
Pick It Early
Pick lettuce in the early morning before the heat of the day causes the lettuce leaves to lose their crispness. Lettuce is fresher and crisper at this time and also tastes sweeter.
Test for Readiness
For loose-leaf lettuce varieties, the outer leaves can be harvested on a continuous basis when the plant reaches its harvest-ready date. As you pick the outer leaves, the plant continues to grow from the middle. These leaves should be full sized and tender. Woody leaves were left on the plant too long and will taste bitter.
Butterhead lettuce and other head varieties are ready for harvesting when the inner leaves have formed a head and the plants approach their variety-specific maturity date. To test if the head is ready, gently push down with the back of your hand. It should feel firm and crisp.
Harvest methods differ depending on the type of lettuce you're picking. For loose-leaf varieties, use your fingers to pinch off individual lettuce leaves at the base of the plant. For lettuce heads, use a sharp knife or pruning shears and cut off the entire head at its base, approximately 1 inch above soil level. Use cutting tools that have been wiped with a cloth soaked in rubbing alcohol. This helps prevent the spread of disease.
Cleaning and Storing Lettuce
Refrigerate lettuce leaves immediately after picking, as unrefrigerated leaves can wilt within 15 minutes of harvesting. Place the lettuce in a loose plastic bag, unwashed. Washed lettuce deteriorates quickly, but dry, unwashed lettuce can last for up to 14 days in your fridge's crisper drawer. When you're ready to use the lettuce, rinse each leaf under cold running water to get rid of dirt and any other debris.
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