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Garden Lettuce – Read This if You Hate It, Love It and/or Want Superior Seed

About everything you can think of tastes better when you grow it yourself;  especially from an organic garden that works with nature . The only exception I can think of is if you grow varieties that have little or no taste.

Grow the Right Variety

Sometime back a reader told me her husband didn’t like garden lettuce. He preferred store bought. I’d almost be willing to bet it’s the variety that’s the problem there.

Here’s an example that comes to mind:

Black Seeded Simpson is a popular variety of lettuce. By popular I mean grown by many. I can almost bet that it got to be that way because it will endure in the garden when a lot of other varieties have run their course and are no more.

I’ve grown it for many years for that very reason. When I’m without all others, I can probably come up with a few leaves of Black Seeded Simpson if I’m desperate for lettuce.

But that’s just about the only way it gets into the salad bowl.

When prime varieties that are crisp and flavorful, like Sierra Batavia and Winter Density, are available I don’t even consider Black Seeded Simpson. It’s neither crisp nor flavorful. Enjoyable only when you’re a lettuce lover like me and have none of the greats to choose from.

Another example:

A visitor to my garden last July asked to sample my lettuces. He liked them all, but when he put a piece of Sierra Batavia in his mouth it brought a “wow!” reponse. He said it was the highest quality and best tasting lettuce he’d ever had.

Then he tasted Winter Density and it brought close to the same response. But he said if he had to choose one, he’d choose Sierra Batavia.

My visitor also sampled Black Seeded Simpson. No response. We moved on to the next.

Why Not Give It Another Try

If you “hate garden lettuce”, why not give it another try and grow the two favorites I mentioned. You might just change your mind about garden lettuce.

(And by the way, both are open pollinated which will be important if you want to save seed.)

Quality of Commercial Seed Seems to Be on The Decline

Several friends and/or readers have mentioned having problems with germination (and growth) of some of their purchased seed.

Over the past 3 years, that’s my experience as well.

Even though you might be able to get a replacement or your money back, you may have missed the window to plant by the time you realize the problem and contact the seller.

With everything that’s going on in the seed and food industry, this might just be the hand writing on the wall for what the future holds.

Culling Takes Away Some Profit from Commercial Growers

I would imagine that most farmers growing for the seed market would not find it profitable to cull out inferior plants from the field. Each added step takes time and money (for helpers) which takes away from profit.

In our own garden we have much more control and it’s easy to save just the largest and most robust plants to obtain the best seed.

Overall, Better Germination and Stronger Seedlings Result from Saving Your Own Seed

Last fall I planted several varieties including my favorite, Winter Denisty, for going into winter.

Commercial seed that I had on hand germinated much more slowly than saved seed from my garden.

When I shared some of the seedlings with a friend, she told me they were the strongest little lettuce seedlings she had seen. This confirmed what I’ve found to be true as well.

Once You Have an Open-pollinated Variety You Love – Your Next Step to Superior Seed Is Saving Seed

To get superior seed, you have to save your own.

Important Tip

If you’re new to seed saving and you read something that you consider complicated or confusing (either in the this article or somewhere else), don’t pay much attention to it at this time.

Just let a plant go to seed and save the seed. This will teach you more than you realize and eventually when you revisit the seemingly complicated information, you’ll understand it easily.

Even if you make mistakes, you can’t go too far wrong.

How Many Plants Do You Need?

Although one lettuce plant will produce an abundance of seed, it’s better to save seed from 3 plants to get the best lettuce in the long run.

Using at least 3 will give you genetic diversity. That’s what allows future seed/seedlings to slowly adapt to your climate and growing conditions.

And yes, it’s fine to mix the seed together. Nature will automatically sort for you when you plant again. Then when the time comes again to save seed and you choose the biggest and best plants, those are the ones nature has sorted for you as being the best.

If for some reason you only have one plant available for seed saving, proceed anyway. Never let imperfect conditions, or not being able to do everything, stop you from doing what you CAN do.

Fall planted lettuce in upper left of photo was planted in the fall and is setting seed in June.  The row on the right of the picture was spring planted. Four varieties.  Just starting to stalk.

 

Closer view of lettuce planted in the fall and wintered over. Stalked soonerthan lettuce planted in the spring.

Should You Save Seed from a Hybrid or an Open Pollinated Variety?

Seed that will remain true to that variety will come from an open pollinated variety of lettuce.

Understanding the Difference in a Hybrid and an Open Pollinated Plant

Hybrid

If you’ve gardened for a while, you already know that hybrid varieties of any vegetable have two different varieties as parents. In other words, the pollen of one variety is used to pollinate the other variety. Most hybrids on the market have been created with traits that are in the interest of “making a profit” rather than taste or other traits that you might desire from your plants.

When you plant seed produced by a hybrid, you can’t be sure of what you’ll get. In most cases the resulting plants will be less vigorous than the hybrid from which the seed was produced.

The good news is that — over a number of seasons — if you grow and save seed from resulting plants that you consider the best, you might come up with something very nice. AND it can be eventually stabilized by the resulting open-pollination over time.

Open Pollinated

In open pollinated plants there is a free (open) exchange of pollen among like plants. It’s not necessarily limited to one plant pollinating another; the flow of pollen is “open”. So it might be pollinated by more than one plant.

As long as only pollen from the same variety is shared, the seed resulting will produce true to its type (or variety) every year. If pollen from other varieties are shared, the result will be a hybrid.

Determining if a Lettuce is a Hybrid or Open Pollinated Variety.

Not all seed sources tell whether or not the lettuce is an open pollinated or hybrid variety. It can sometimes be difficult to get that information even when you Google it.

Occasionally,  I’ll go to the Baker Creek website to see if they carry the variety. If they do, you know it’s open pollinated (since they carry heirlooms only and all heirlooms are open-pollinated). On the downside, there are many great varieties they don’t carry.

If you can’t find the information on the variety of choice, I would assume it’s a hybrid.

Lettuce is Self-Pollinating. So What Does That Mean?

Those dozens of tiny little dandelion-like flowers contain both male and female components. Thus, lettuce is considered self pollinating.
It does not need pollen from another flower to pollinate.

The plant grown from the saved seed will render an almost identical plant.

Cross pollination by other varieties that are close by and blooming at the same time, is not as much of a worry with lettuce, but it is possible.

For example if you have two varieties that stalk up (grow a tall stalk and flower) and intertwine with each other, some of the seed will more than likely cross pollinate.

If this happens some of the seed from each plant may not grow true to type.

Is Cross Pollinating Worth the Worry? And If It Is, Here’s What to Do

Most sources recommend keeping varieties at least 25 feet apart to be sure they don’t cross pollinate.

That would not be practical in my garden. When I plant lettuce I plant 2 to 4 varieties in the same bed or at least within 5 feet of each other.

My seed always seems to produce true to the variety grown in spite of that.
If a few seeds (of the many I saved from one plant) happened to have been “hybrids” (a result of cross pollination), I would more than likely be able to see the difference as the plants of the next generation matured.  I would cull out those plants and not allow them to seed.

How to Know When Seed is Ready

When temperatures start to rise, lettuce starts to bolt. It’ll send up a seed stalk that will produce dozens of tiny little dandelion like flowers.

Each plant seems to have it’s own time schedule maturing. So you’ll have plants stalking, producing flowers, and setting seed at different times over a period of several weeks.

As this happens, cull out the shorter and less robust plants. Allow the biggest and the best to seed.

Be sure to mark the variety of the seeding plant. Once lettuce matures to the point of flowering and setting seed, much of it looks identical.

After the flowers bloom, it can take 2 to 4 weeks for the seed to be produced.
When I see a lot of the flower heads turning “fluffy” (again, like a dandelion), I can start collecting seed.

The flowers are gone and the “fluff” is coming. I’ll wait till a bit more comes and then start harvesting the seed.

Several Ways to Collect Seed

  • You could make a bag of row cover fabric and tie it over the flowering/seed producing part. Seeds will fall into the bag.

Other than making the bag, this requires less effort and no other attention from you until you remove the bag when seeding is finished.

This is also an excellent and easy way to prevent possible cross pollination.

I’ve also done this with large thin paper bags. The fabric bag is much better, especially for air circulation; but in a pinch this works.

You’ll notice I had written the variety on the bag with a sharpie.  It rained. The bag dried in the sun the next day.  I just had to extra careful about making sure the contents of the bag dried.  Not the best idea, but it worked.

  • Another way is to shake the plants each day or every other day and let the seed fall into a paper bag. (If you have more than one variety be sure and mark the variety on the bag.)

(Be aware that all kinds of little insects usually end up in the bag. Once you put the contents of the bag into a shallow container they’ll leave.)

If for some reason you’ve missed most of the seed producing time and the plant is about finished, you can

  • cut the stalk and shake what’s left of the seed into a bag, a tub, or bucket.

 

This lettuce is about finished seeding. It was planted in the fall. As summer progressed I planted tomatoes in the bed and culled out the lettuce I didn’t want to seed.

Cleaning the Seed (or not)

When I’m collecting seed, there’s so much chaff and fluff that I have to scoop up a hand full and look closely to see if I really do have lettuce seed.

(Some lettuce seed is dark and some is white. )

According to most sources, it’s easy to remove the chaff and fluff before storing.

Supposedly when you pour the collected seed, chaff , and fluff into a shallow tray and run a fan at low speed near the tray, the chaff and fluff will leave and the seed will stay.

The first time I tried this, all the chaff and fluff left, but so did the seed.

I’m sure you’ll do much better than I did. In case you don’t, feel free to store the seed with chaff and fluff. Just make sure it all air drys completely before storing. I’ve done that for years with no problem.

How Long Will Lettuce Seed Keep?

Most sources state that lettuce seed keeps for 6 years when stored properly.

I’ve had it remain viable even longer.

Final Thought

It’s pretty miraculous when you think about being able to create seed that is better adapted to your soil, climate and unique growing conditions.

Nothing special needed, other than the desire to do it.

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Related Posts:

Seed Saving/Seed Storage

Focus on What You Can Do

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All content including photos are copyright by TendingMyGarden.com. All Rights Reserved.

5 comments to Garden Lettuce – Read This if You Hate It, Love It and/or Want Superior Seed

  • Thanks for all the step by step info and variety names. I have never been a big fan of lettuce. I will try these two this Fall.

  • Steve Gillaspie

    Theresa,
    Great information on saving seed. I need to learn my saved seed is valuable. I seem to wind up buying seed over using my saved seed. I need to take the plunge a bit more often. You are an encouragement to me to advocate saving seed and USING THEM.

    Thanks again
    Steve

  • Betty

    Wow! Very informative article. I have been one of those people who plant Black-seeded Simpson because of its reliability. And I do think it tastes better than lettuce from the store too. I usually plant a variety of Red romaine but have never found one that I can really hang my hat on. But thanks to you, I will add these – Sierra Batavia and Winter Density, to try next fall and spring.

  • Toni Melvin

    Wonderful information! I LOVE saving seed and lettuce was the first one I tried. I was hooked from that moment on. I did look for Sierra Batavia seed this spring but was unable to find it. Do you remember where you originally purchased it?
    Thank you for the tip of making a bag out of the row cover! Brilliant! I can’t believe I didn’t think of that

  • Theresa

    Laura, thanks for letting me know you plan to try these varieties. I’d love to know how you like them.

    Steve, many of us are guilty of the same thing and do indeed need to realize how valuable our saved seed is.

    Betty, I was delighted you found the article informative. Appreciate knowing that you grow Black Seeded Simpson and for the reason I mentioned in the post.
    Out of all the red romaines I’ve grown, I’ve not found any that get me excited about crispness or taste. They look beautiful, but only get in the salad bowl here mainly for color.

    Toni, I don’t remember where I got my seed for Sierra Batavia originally. I did a Google search and was rather alarmed not to be able to find but two places that carried this great lettuce! That is more proof that all of us need to realize that the great stuff is quickly disappearing. If we don’t save our seed, we may well be out of luck in the future.
    Try Siskiyouseeds.com and Southernexposure.com
    If I were you, I would order now for fear of not being able to get them in the fall.
    Theresa

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