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How To Avoid Bitter-Tasting Lettuce

How To Avoid Bitter-Tasting Lettuce


As much as we all love flowers, sometimes they come at the most inopportune time, like when you have a big potluck coming up and you promised a salad from your garden and after one hot spell weekend all you have is a few spindly flowers and gross, bitter lettuce leaves. To avoid such disappointments and potluck embarrassments (We can all tell you got store bought lettuce, Candice) there are some measures that can be taken to avoid having prematurely seedy plants with a bitter disposition.

Bolting is a natural process that happens in your lettuce’s life. An internal clock inside lettuce, and many other leafy plants, keeps track of the number of daylight hours that the plant receives. After 55-150 days most lettuce varieties will have reached the end of their life cycle and produce seeds. Premature bolting however, is the result of a stressed plant trying to pass on its legacy to the next generation. You know when your lettuce, arugula or kale sends up a tall thick stalk and flowers, then shortly thereafter makes an abundance of seeds? That’s bolting. Your plant is desperately attempting to use its last vestige of energy to make babies before it dies. That stalk just reaches for the sky, uses most of the plant’s energy and all the sweetness that once was in those tender leaves has gone. You are left with a bitter, old wench of a plant and can’t figure out what you did wrong.

How To Avoid Bolting:

Proper Planting Practices
If you are transplanting starts, be sure to give them and the planting hole a good soak. An effective way to ensure that your transplants are sufficiently moist is to set them in a bucket of water so they can suck up the moisture from below. Far too often we think we have wet our planties because the soil looks wet but the water never reaches the roots. Then when you plant your lettuce start, it is already stressed and when you water it, the moisture will roll off the surface, continuously missing the roots. Cue the bolt.

Row Covers
Even more bolt inducing than heat is light. Draping your lettuce in a floating row cover can help shade them from the oppressive heat. Row covers look like long sheets of cheese cloth and have the double benefit of keeping some bugs off your plants. Important note: Do not confuse row covers with hoop houses, which are made of plastic and will render the opposite effect, adding heat and humidity.

Dense Planting
When you are planting your lettuce or thinning your sprouts, don’t leave too much space in between your plants. Give them breathing room, yes, but bare soil will bake in the sun. Hot, dry soil will lead to bolting a lot quicker than soil that has coolness incubated by shade casting leaves.

One of my favourite mediums! Keep the soil cool by throwing some mulch on there. Don’t actually throw it. Place it nicely, now. Mulch incubates the coolness of the soil and reduces your watering bill by lessening evapotranspiration (science).

Choose an Appropriate Home
Most importantly, planning where to plant according to your greens’ needs will have the greatest impact on their health. Take a day to record the relationship the sun has with your garden patch. Once you know where and when the sun is its strongest, you can plan according to your plants’ requirements. Lettuce doesn’t favour hot, dry, full sun sites. Save those for your tomatoes, peppers and other heat lovers. 

The upside to a bolted plant is that those flowers are edible and most often just scrumptious. They look fabulous and exotic when added to salads and are jam packed with nutrients. In addition, if you choose to refrain from devouring your plant’s flower children, you can let them make seeds and collect them for your next sowing! Let those seeds dry out for a while on the stalk, then chop them down, lay them on a tray in a dry, well ventilated area. Next remove your bolted lettuce and sow some new seeds in their place! 

Happy potlucking!

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