Are you planning to grow lettuce or have you noticed that some of your lettuce plants are starting to look different than they did a few days ago? If your lettuce has developed a long stem in the middle of the plant, is starting to produce little flowers, or is bitter to the taste, these are all signs that your lettuce has begun bolting. Learn more about why bolting happens and what to do if you notice this difference.
What is bolting?
Bolting occurs in all types of plants, and in the case of lettuce, it happens when the lettuce wants to reproduce. Generally, when the lettuce determines it has reached the end of its lifecycle it will begin to produce seeds. However, it will gradually become inedible in this process as its leaves become bitter to the taste and the structure of the leaves hardens. You can recognize bolting by the way the plant’s appearance begins to change. The lettuce will grow upwards in its attempt to seed quickly instead of remaining close to the soil and becoming bushy. Some lettuce will also grow little flowers on its stem during bolting.
When the conditions of the plants’ environment are unfavorable, such as when the outside weather is at extremely high or low temperatures and the plant is in direct sunlight for prolonged hours at a time, the lettuce will start to bolt.
How to prevent bolting?
The main catalyst for bolting lettuce is high temperatures, longer than normal periods in direct sunlight and less moisture. All these factors are present during the summertime which is when most people experience problems with bolting lettuce. To counteract this setback, lettuce can be grown in the shade or near a fence where it does not receive as much direct sunlight as other plants. Although the lettuce can still get just as hot from being exposed to hot weather in the shade, the moisture is better retained in the soil in areas with less sunlight. More moisture will in turn give your lettuce a longer lifespan.
You can even plant the lettuce under a tree or under another crop for your lettuce to survive through the difficult summer months. However, you must also be wary when planting lettuce under big trees since this may completely obstruct the lettuce from getting sunlight. Too little sunlight will cause slow growth in lettuce, so it is ideal to know which areas of your garden get a medium amount of sunlight and plant your lettuce there.
Another important thing to remember is to water your lettuce more often during the hot summer months. Similarly, you can apply mulch around lettuce plants after watering to retain the soil moisture for longer periods at a time. Depending on where you live it may be beneficial to research different varieties of lettuce that are more resistant to hot weather and plant accordingly.
What to do if your lettuce has bolted?
If you find your lettuce still in the early stages of bolting, meaning the inner stem has just begun pushing the growth upwards or the taste of the leaves is still sweet, then you can harvest the lettuce. Snip off the leaves from the stem and cut the extended stem close to its base after you have harvested the lettuce.
If your lettuce has bolted beyond the ability to be harvested due to its bitterness and altered texture, it may still be a good idea to keep the plant rather than pull it out and throw it in the compost. Since lettuce bolting produces seeds, you can wait to collect the seeds and replant them in the same soil. The benefit of using bolted lettuce seeds is that the plant has already adapted to your soil and will have a better chance of thriving in your garden in the next growing season rather than starting over with new seeds.
Ready to start growing healthy lettuce plants? Make sure you know your garden well and which areas get the most or least amount of sunlight before you decide where to plant your lettuce. If you are growing your lettuce in a pot, find an area with shade. It’s essential to make sure your lettuce plant is getting enough water during hot temperatures, and that the soil is consistently moist. Following these guidelines will prolong the life of your lettuce plant and prevent it from bolting early in the summertime.
If you recognize the signs of bolting in your lettuce, harvest the leaves before their texture and taste begin to change dramatically. For plants that cannot be harvested, you can wait until the bolted lettuce has produced seeds and replant in the same soil next year.