Lettuce Explain Bolting

Are your lettuce plants suddenly very tall? They may be bolting! This is when they send up a long flower stalk to begin the next stage of their lives – seed production! At this point, the leaves will be a little less sweet or even bitter, but you can still pick them off the flower stalk to eat.

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You can pull the plant out now and re-seed more lettuce or plant something else. If you want to collect seeds from your own plant, leave it in the ground and let the flowers bloom. The seeds will be ready to harvest in 6-8 weeks.

Why does this happen? Bolting happens when the lettuce shifts from the vegetative state (growing a leafy head) to a reproductive state (growing flower stalks to produce seed). The bitterness comes from a sticky white latex, produced when the plant begins to bolt to protect against chewing insects during a vulnerable time in its life cycle – seed production.

Bolting is a natural part of the life cycle. While you can delay it from happening (essentially by keeping the plant in the vegetative state for as long as possible), it is inevitably going to happen.

You can keep it in the vegetative state a little longer by:
-planting varieties that are “slow bolting”
-harvest older, outer leaves first and often for looseleaf varieties, or cut 2/3 of the plant (from the top) every week or two for heading varieties
-keep cool (shade is great) and water well
-snip off the flower stalk as soon as it appears

You can also just plan for bolting to happen in your garden, and plant succession crops of lettuce every 3-4 weeks. That way, you’ll have tender, sweet lettuce all season long.