There’s nothing more disappointing than biting into a salad prepared from your freshly harvested lettuce only to find the lettuce is horribly inedible. Especially if you mothered that plant. Perhaps you visited daily to discourage caterpillar and aphid infestations. Possibly you installed an umbrella on a hot day to shade it. Maybe you even witness protected it to another location in the garden once the rabbits found it. (Or you’re green thumbed enough you don’t have to resort to such drastic measures at your house.) Sadly, once the lettuce has gone bitter, it’s bolted and going to seed. It does this when it gets too hot.
If you know what to look for though, you may be able to harvest the whole plant and enjoy before it fully bolts. Or at the very least, you won’t end up spitting out your lunch.
Sign 1 – The Lettuce is Flowering
This is the most obvious clue that your lettuce has given up. At this point, the plant is beyond saving. You can let it flower to enjoy the blooms and harvest the seeds. Or you can pull it and plant something more heat tolerant.
Sign 2 – It Begins to Shoot Up
When you notice the stalk getting taller quickly or the space between each layer of leaves stretching out, the plant on its way out. You can see the height difference between the two iceberg lettuces below. The one on the right is definitely gone. The one of the left might still be edible, but in another day or two, it will officially be compost ready as well.
A healthy, still delicious lettuce should look like this Buttercrunch pictured below. The plant is compact, the leaves bunched tightly together.
Or like these iceberg lettuces. The leaves are longer, but the base of the plant is still packed tightly and the lettuce is low to the ground.
Sign 3 – The Leaves Taste Bitter
Unless you are growing rocket or some other spicy, bitter green, tasting the lettuce is a quick way to determine if the plant has bolted or not. When in doubt, break off a piece and try it. If it’s still mild and sweet, bon appétit!