There’s nothing like the sweet taste of early spring lettuce. It’s always a disappointment when hot dry weather comes and causes bolting and bitterness.
But don’t be in such a hurry to pull up your lettuce when that happens. There are some secrets to getting lettuce that’s tasty through mid July or longer.
Several Immediate Things To Do
- If lettuce is stressed by hot weather, pick early in the morning. It’s had the night to recover from the sun, so its life force will be the strongest.
- To get that freshly harvested quality in any season, you should always have an ample size bowl of cool water with you in the garden. Immerse the lettuce in the water immediately after picking it.
Note: The possible exception to this would be if you are harvesting heads of lettuce. I get the most out of my lettuce by grazing continually, never allowing it to head.
- Pick new leaves. Old leaves tend to be stronger tasting.
Water and cold can work miracles in restoring some of the sweetness to your lettuce in these two tips:
- Let your lettuce soak in the water for about an hour after harvest. (Be sure you use water that is pure and not loaded with chlorine and chemicals.)
- After gently washing and drying place in a plastic bag. Keep refrigerated for 24 to 48 hours before eating.
Things to Do Before the Season
- Make sure your soil has lots of organic matter. It feeds your lettuce and also retains moisture. (Good nutrients and water go a long way towards sweet lettuce)
- Plant different varieties. Some lettuces take the heat better than others.
Try a few new varieties each year and find out what works best for you.
Keep in mind lettuces that have a characteristically sharp, bitter flavor won’t be changed by anything you can do. Endive lettuce is an example.
- Plant a little lettuce every week in the early spring. Some plantings will do better than others. But you won’t know which ones until the time arrives. (I call it backup.)
- Mulch your lettuce. It keeps the soil temperatures cooler and helps retain moisture vital to sweetness.
- Plant in various spots and include some spots of partial shade. (You’re gonna be amazed at how some of these will outshine the others.)
- Plant in the shade of your other vegetables. I plant lettuce between my tomatoes. If you trellis your cukes, plant lettuce where it will be shaded by the big cuke leaves.
And by the way, just because it’s bitter today — don’t assume that it will be bitter tomorrow. Here’s an example of what I mean:
The rains stopped in late spring this year. To make matters worse, the temperatures were above 90 degrees. The lettuce didn’t like it! It was only the first of June and almost every variety I had was bitter.
We waited 4 weeks before the rain came again. Only 1/2 inch, but it was amazing the difference it made in the lettuce. Two days later we had another 7/8 inch and the lettuce was as sweet as early spring. Here it is July and it’s still delicious.
You can’t predict the weather. If you pull up things too quickly, you miss the opportunity to take advantage of good fortune.
If It’s Too Far Gone to Eat in a Salad
Use it as a cooked green. It’s delicious! I’ll give you an easy recipe in my next post.
Other Posts on Lettuce:
Lettuce – Eating Fresh Even After it Stalks?
Lettuce – Favorites, Tips and Several Sources
Lettuce – Spinning Like a Great Chef
Lettuce – Plant in the Fall/Harvest for 3 Seasons
Lettuce – A Teaser and Reminder
Lettuce – Cold Frames and Voles
All content including photos are copyrighted by TendingMyGarden.com
Thank you for all the wonderful tips. I hadn’t heard of some of these ideas before. You really know your stuff!
Here’s another reason to plant lettuce at different times: The slugs are more active some weeks. We had a very rainy spring, and one entire bed (out of four) was eaten by slugs as soon as the seedlings appeared. Luckily, I plant my lettuce in several different spots in the garden, so the other patches were less damaged.
Any tips for getting rid of slugs? The beer traps didn’t work for us.
Yes, you sure are right! I like you have found that slugs are definitely another reason to plant lettuce at different times.
You might want to read my post on slugs entitled Slug Damage – Solution – Review.
Sure glad you found the lettuce tips useful! Nice to have lettuce as long as possible.
Thanks for taking time to comment.
Theresa ~ I am so glad your site came up when I googled what to do about my bitter garden lettuce. I was just about to pull it up and compost it. I was so discouraged. Thank you for helping me find some solutions and not feel quite so defeated.
I’m glad I could be of help to you Toni. How to get lettuce in the hot days of summer is a well-kept secret — which I was happy to share.
I’ve had very good luck preventing greens from being eradicated by slugs etc, by spreading coffee grinds around base of plant.
A lot of folks seems to have had excellent luck with this Janine. Also in spraying the slugs with liquid coffee.
I don’t drink coffee, but if I had coffee grounds I’d definitely use this idea. Also coffee grounds are great organic matter. Sure appreciate your posting this. Many thanks.
Lately the romaine lettuce I have been buying is unusually & unpleasantly bitter (particularly the spines). How can I sweeten it? Do I use the same cold water method as suggested for head lettuce?
Beth, I raise all my own lettuce. I have in past years used store bought and always found that most of it tastes bitter. I don’t know what you can do about the bitterness in store-bought lettuce. However, why not go ahead and try the cold water method and see if it works.
Thanks for the info! I’m not good at gardening, but I’m trying! I picked our first harvest of lettuce (I planted a farmer’s mix, 6 different types of leaf lettuces) tonight to go with BBQ ribs. and YUK it was so bitter! we live in a mild climate so I don’t think it is the weather (hot) but you gave other tips. How can we test the soil for nitrogen? We have plenty of wood ash from our wood stove, can we add ash now anyway? We started with “fresh” gardening soil from Home Depot. what should we add annually to the soil?
FYI: Our local Starbucks bags up used coffee grounds for gardens, and its free!
From your questions I can tell you are new to my site. Welcome.
Your questions have all been answered in one or more of my 500 posts and in my book.
Regarding wood ash — scroll and see my reply to Betty’s comment in this post:
also scroll and see my reply to Steve’s comment in this post:https://tendingmygarden.com/3-things-to-think-about-before-the-new-year-arrives/
Regarding testing for nitrogen which I have NEVER done in 37 years of gardening see this post: https://tendingmygarden.com/soil-test-the-pros-and-cons/
Regarding your soil from Home Depot: you might read this post:https://tendingmygarden.com/a-readers-questions-on-soil-preparation/ plus the other posts listed at the end of the post
In short — regarding what you should add annually to your soil — organic materials like leaves, straw, grass clippings, your coffee grounds from Starbucks, etc.
I don’t know if you have Starbucks where you live, but surely you have Coffee Houses, etc. Starbucks will save their coffee grounds, if you ask them the day before you want them. The only thing, Starbuck employees do not clean out the filters, so you have to weed through that.
Thank you for your tip on bitter lettuce, I live in Northern California and have just planted my first salad garden, this year. I just had a salad with lettuce from my garden and I thought if I gave the lettuce lots of water, it would make it sweet (I had just stayed at a farm farther up and on the coast and their lettuce was VERY bitter. I wondered why? Now, I know.). Mine was a little bitter, but not as bad as their’s. I will try your tips, next time, I pick my lettuce leaves.
Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences and expertise with the rest of the world ! Madeleine
(no need to reply)
The same can be true for celery. I grew celery for several years and was always disappointed with bitterness, I would compost the whole crop. I finally figured out that if I put the celery in the fridge for a few days it was quite good.
Interesting! Thanks Ken.
Theresa thank you for the tips on lettuce. I love growing it but in Florida it can bitter up quickly. I will be more patient before it goes into compost. I did learn the tip you gave about planting it in partial shade. The spring/summer growing season for scallions, lettuce and spinach is very short down here but I can extend it until June because I plant in containers most out of the heat of day. They do well. Thank you
Good to hear from you Bonnie.
Glad you are finding ways to keep lettuce going even with Florida heat.
Containers sound like a great idea for lettuce.
Have a great season Bonnie!
Hi Theresa, I hope you are still out there giving insight. I just bought some Foxy Romaine Heads yesterday. I have honestly never experienced the hearts tasting like cyanide. I have lettuce in my garden that is bitter from the heat, but this was a chemical taste that I couldn’t get out of my mouth for over an hour. My husband tried it without me saying anything and thought it tasted chemical too. Have you ever heard of this?
Dawn, it doesn’t surprise me that the store bought lettuce tasted like a chemical. (very acrid and bitter)
It’s been years since I’ve had store bought lettuce. I won’t eat it unless it comes from my garden. But years ago, Bill and I experienced exactly the same thing you and your husband just experienced.
Conventionally raised store bought is a poor substitute for real food.
And even most of the organic food in stores leaves much to be desired.
I have scoured the web and my gardening books and I am curious about this one question:
My lettuce went bitter in early July (I’m in Virginia) and I kept eating it. Then we had a dry spell and I let it go a bit and then we had a wet spell and the sunflowers I planted behind the lettuce got so big and heavy they leaned over the lettuce and I could hardly reach it. Work picked up, and I didn’t get to garden as much as I did when things were shut down this spring. Now, the lettuce that hasn’t bolted looks beautiful with big green, though bitter, leaves. What will happen if I leave my plot of lettuce to over-winter? Will it come back bitter, or will it start anew and sweet in the spring? I’m interested to try this as an experiment. OR, do you recommend enjoying these bitter leaves cooked and then tilling the plants under for winter later this fall?
If in fact the lettuce that is now “beautiful with big green leaves” was what you planted in the spring it will probably bolt soon.
If it happened that seed fell and produced new plants when you were otherwise occupied and missed seeing it, then you might be able to winter it over with protection.
Your best bet to winter over lettuce is to plant in September, October and/or November. And even then you will need protection when temperatures fall into the 20s — especially below 28º F.
Experimenting would be great because then you’ll have some first hand experience under your belt.