You planted lettuce seed with visions of harvesting beautiful heads of sweet and tasty heirloom lettuce, but almost overnight the plants began stretching for the clouds and turned bitter… a familiar tale of a gardener’s grief:
“Please help I planted romaine lettuce with no knowledge of what I was doing. The plants have not died instead they have long stems and flowers. I do not like to throw away any plant that is alive yet I do not know what to do with them?” – Olga
When lettuce bolts and runs to seed long before the plants mature it’s usually a sign that the plants were stressed in some manner. That’s not uncommon and can be the result of drought, high temperatures, overcrowding, or other unfavorable growing conditions.
A Plant’s Prime Objective; Be Fruitful and Multiply
The plant’s ultimate goal is to produce offspring and if it senses a threat to achieving that objective the response is often to speed up maturity in an attempt to bear seed before it is too late. In this case the romaine lettuce couldn’t produce a lush head of edible leaves for whatever reason, and instead it ran to seed prematurely.
I’ve noticed vegetable seedlings the size of transplants that were deprived and stressed to the point that they sent up a seed stalk and flowered right in their cell-paks on the shelves of the greenhouse. Once the plants reach that stage and switch to seed production mode there is really no way to turn back or fix the problems.
All you can do at that point is to chalk it up as experience. Next time around adjust the timing of your seed sowing or provide adequate space, water, nutrients, and conditions for the lettuce to grow properly. As distressing as it may be to remove a plant that is still growing, there is no shame or harm in adding the bolted plants to the compost pile where they will serve to nourish future crops.
What’s a Gardener to do with Bolted Romaine Lettuce?
Here are your options for dealing with those lettuce plants that have developed a stalk, flowered, and gone to seed in the garden:
- Let the lettuce continue growing – not awfully attractive but maybe the flowers will help attract and support some populations of beneficial insects.
Produce a crop of lettuce seed – not recommended, as future generations from the seed may show an inherited tendency bolt and run to seed too quickly.
Add the plants to the compost pile – just make sure the seeds haven’t matured or you might just be setting yourself up for weedy lettuce volunteers in the future.
Or you can always eat the lettuce – it’s bound to be bitter and not the best tasting romaine around, but the leaves and even the tiny yellow flowers are still edible.
My choice would be to remove the bolted romaine lettuce plants from the garden, add them to the compost pile, and to try planting again for fall, or better yet early next spring. When I’ve experienced bolting lettuce in the garden it’s usually been the result of poor timing and forcing the lettuce mature when it was just too hot outside.
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