QUESTION: What does it mean when your lettuce bolts? Is it just seeding and can I still harvest it? -Jasmine S.
ANSWER: Bolting is a natural part of the life cycle of your lettuce plants. It can be delayed, but bolting cannot be avoided entirely. When the lettuce plant bolts, it begins to quickly stretch taller, sending up a flowering stalk. Bolting means that the plant is changing its focus away from growing foliage and toward flowering and creating seeds.
Bolting sends energy and nutrients to the flowering stalk that would otherwise go toward keeping the leaves healthy and tasty. That means the longer it’s been since the lettuce plant’s flowering stalk appeared, the less tasty the lettuce leaves will be, although they’re still edible.
You can minimize the effect of bolting on the plant by using clean, sterilized shears to clip the flowering shoot off as soon as you notice it’s there. If you’d prefer, you can leave the flowering stalk on the plant and collect the seeds it produces to use in your garden in future seasons. It takes six to eight weeks from the appearance of the flower stalk for the plant to bear mature seeds. Another alternative is simply pulling up the lettuce plant and sowing new seeds in the place it was growing.
Even though every lettuce plant is destined to bolt sooner or later, there are some steps you can take to slow the process down and delay it as much as possible. First of all, set yourself up for success by choosing lettuce varieties that are slow to bolt to grow in your garden. Plant your lettuce in a spot where it will get some shade during the hottest part of the day, or use companion plants selected for their height to provide your lettuce with some afternoon shade.
Be careful when harvesting your lettuce to use the proper technique and avoid damaging or stressing the plant. For heading varieties, you can simply use your shears to cut off the top two thirds of the plant. To harvest other types of lettuce, pick leaves from the outside of the plant at its base, and work your way up and toward the center of the plant. Always leave at least one third of the leaves on the plant when you’re done harvesting so the plant can keep growing. There’s more to learn in our article “Preventing Bolted Lettuce”.