Growing lettuce
and what to do about bolting

freshness on the go with lettuce in the gardenfreshness on the go with growing lettuce in the garden

Lettuce: another 'easy' leaf vegetable

Growing lettuce is relatively easy, so I’m putting lettuce with the easy vegetables because its one of those leaf vegetables that can be classed as a winter crop. When chard will not germinate in our Cape winter, lettuce will.

Lettuce seeds sown and watered in. A simple jobLettuce seeds sown. A simple job

The simple 'how to' of growing lettuce

To grow lettuce in winter, simply sow it in pre-wetted potting soil, cover the seeds with a thin 2mm layer of fine sifted material, water in with a delicate fine sprinkler and continue to sprinkle daily till it germinates in a week to a fortnight depending on weather and other conditions. At the four leaf stage pick it out and transplant to group 2 or 3 plants in a larger pot the size of a large mug, with more compost in the mix. Water for a week and then slowly expose it to more sunshine. Plant the lettuce seedlings out in the garden when the plants are robust, so they hit the ground running.

I am in the process of changing this classic old fashioned system for growing seedlings with one used by an Australian permaculturist. The aim of the exercise is to eliminate transplanting shock completely, so that the plants keep growing in a continuum instead of ‘sitting still’  for weeks at a time, which is worsened by cold weather. I will write on this as soon as my easy vegetable series is done and there is more 'proof', or stuff to photograph in the garden that was raised this way.

Lettuce germinates on the rightLettuce germinates on the right

Is growing lettuce really easy ?

What makes lettuce less ‘easy’ is that the spring warmth also reduces your crop. As soon as the days go over 24 degrees C, lettuce will shoot and go to seed. The downside for the gardener is that the leaves become acridly bitter. In the garden one can observe something eerie and strange with lettuce. It is as though the lettuce plants in the shade seem to communicate with their Sistren in the sun by some invisible means and time their flowering to coincide, in one glorious flourish. The new research coming out on plant ‘communication’ through chemical messages and mycorrhiza makes this seem less far fetched. 

lettuce growing in summer in afternoon shade with tomatoes, basil and pumpkins. It bolted soon.lettuce growing in summer in afternoon shade with tomatoes, basil and pumpkins. It bolted soon.

What to do about bolting when growing lettuce

My teacher advised that to prevent lettuce bolting in the intense Cape summer heat, it should be planted in partial shade or filtered light under net, from November onwards. That is the beginning of our summer’s long sunlight hours, but by February the heat is oppressive. 

Remove all bolting plants from the garden, and remove the whole plant, not just the shoot in the middle with the elongated nodes. Also remove it the minute you notice lengthening nodes, don’t wait for the stalk to protrude way above the rest of the leaves, or for flower buds to form. Spinach, lettuce, mustard and Chinese cabbage are all prone to bolting when warm weather comes. The ‘message’ to procreate gets around by some mysterious means and once plants in your garden start bolting it is irreversible and time to replace your winter crops with summer crops, according to the garden website link below.

Lettuce showing the slight node lengthening which signals coming sexual reproduction or boltingLettuce showing the slight node lengthening which signals coming sexual reproduction or bolting

The up-side of bolting lettuce

When you finally surrender to the inevitable, leave some of the choicest plants to flower and produce seed and harvest it for the next season.

Next season you may find some reversions to type, what looks a bit like wild lettuce in your garden, a long legged dandelion like plant with small flowers. It is probably not the original wild lettuce Lactuca virosa, which is a medicinal plant, but the name ‘virosa’ means poisonous, so I would be cautious with eating it. I’ve read of quite a few cases of toxicity from consuming wild lettuce.

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home page for links to useful practical information on numerous natural gardening topics

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vegetable gardening the low cost, natural way, with a list of easy to grow veggies

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some more details about bolting lettuce

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wild lettuce the medicinal plant

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