Romaine is one of the most popular types of lettuce and easy to grow in the garden, as long as you’re growing in the correct season. It has thick and crisp leaves that star in Caesar salads and hold up to any type of salad dressing well. Many romaines even retain their signature crunch after a quick grilling.
If you are growing it this year, there are a few different ways you can harvest your lettuce crop. You can pick the individual leaves as needed or harvest the whole head to make a large salad for dinner or to try a new grilled romaine recipe.
Here’s how to know when you can start picking from your plants, plus how to harvest romaine lettuce and tips for extending the season.
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What Is Romaine Lettuce?
Many types of lettuce can be harvested in a similar way, but it’s always good to know the particular kind you’re growing and how it can be picked.
Romaine lettuce grows as an upright plant with elongated leaves that form closely packed heads. The heads develop thick midribs, and the leaves tend to be thicker and crisper than other varieties like buttercrunch or loose leaf.
Like any other lettuce, romaine should be planted in early spring for a late spring/early summer harvest or at the end of summer for a fall harvest. It grows best in cool weather and will quickly fade in the heat.
Though you typically only see one variety in the store, there are actually many cultivars of romaine. Some have a looser structure than the typical closely packed head, and some have red or speckled leaves. The red romaine varieties contain anthocyanin, a powerful antioxidant. Make sure to check out this post on purple vegetables to try to learn more about anthocyanins and which vegetables contain lots of this flavonoid.
Romaine does take a little longer than other varieties to fully mature, but you don’t have to wait until they get to full size to harvest. Romain typically takes about three months to reach full maturity, so you’ll need to take its long growing season into account if you want to harvest fully mature heads.
Romaine Varieties to Try
If you’re planning to grow romaine lettuce, why stick to the same variety you can find in virtually any store? Try one of these romaine cultivars in your garden this season:
When to Harvest Romaine Lettuce
Many varieties of romaine lettuce take about 65-75 days to form a mature head, although some cultivars reach maturity in as few as 55 days. A few others take even longer.
If you want to harvest a whole head of romaine, plan your harvest time based on the days to maturity for the specific variety you’re growing. Then, look for heads to be fully formed and densely packed (they should feel firm when you squeeze them) before harvesting.
Of course, you can also harvest individual leaves from your plants throughout the growing season.
Start picking leaves once they get a few inches long, which is usually about a month after planting. You can continue picking leaves until plants start to fade, or harvest more sparingly if you would like your lettuce to form heads later in the season.
How to Harvest Romaine Lettuce
Lettuce can collect a surprising amount of dirt and it’s a favorite food for snails. Wash your lettuce thoroughly before eating it. Make sure to check below the harvesting information for details on how to store your lettuce in the fridge to keep it crisp and how to revive limp lettuce.
Picking Individual Leaves (“cut and come again”)
To harvest individual leaves from your plants, pick healthy-looking outer leaves and leave the center ones to keep growing. You can simply break leaves off at their base by snapping them down, or you can cut them off with sharp scissors.
This method of harvesting will keep your plants growing as long as you don’t break the central stem. Be sure to keep them well-watered, especially during hot weather, to encourage new growth.
You can harvest the leaves at any point after they’re more than a couple of inches long. The baby romaine in the photo below is the absolute smallest I’d pick the leaves.
For a larger harvest, pick baby leaves when they’re about the size shown below. They will have a bit of the signature crunch you expect from romaine in the central rib and the leaves will be delicious and tender.
Always make sure to leave 2/3 of the leaves so your plant has energy to continue producing.
I personally harvest lettuce using this “cut and come again” method. The leaves are smaller, but you can plant multiple heads for a steady supply of lettuce throughout the season. Once your lettuce prepares to go to seed, harvest the entire head before it becomes bitter.
Extra white lettuce sap is a key indicator that your lettuce is preparing to bolt. One day you’ll be harvesting lettuce and notice more white sap than usual oozing out of the stem when you pick a leaf. This is your signal to harvest the entire head ASAP. For more information on how to spot lettuce that’s about to turn bitter, and how to remove the bitter flavor from lettuce, stop by this post with everything you need to know about bitter lettuce.
Here’s what lettuce sap looks like when the plant is about to bolt:
Picking Whole Heads
Harvesting whole romaine lettuce heads takes a little patience, but you’ll be rewarded with a lot of crisp, fresh lettuce all at once.
When the heads are full-size and firm, cut them off at the base with a sharp knife and take the head inside to wash. If you leave about 2-3 inches of stem in the ground, your plants may regrow and produce a crop of baby lettuce (as long as the weather isn’t too hot). Cutting the stem a little higher up with a couple of leaves still attached can encourage regrowth and create a cleaner head of lettuce (dirt tends to accumulate most in the lower leaves).
If you love homegrown lettuce, a purpose-made lettuce harvesting knife can save you time and ensure quick, clean cuts.
- Knife for harvesting lettuce, vegetables and fruit
- 725-inch stainless steel blade; easy to clean and sanitize
- Blade's weighted tip provides strong striking power and clean cuts
To help prevent bolting, pick your romaine heads promptly after they feel firm.
You can also pull your plants out of the ground and trim the roots off, but it’s better to cut the heads off, if possible, to avoid disturbing your soil structure.
In the photo below, you can see ready to cut heads of romaine lettuce in the bed in front. The red leaf lettuce in the same bed is bolting, and some of the romaine is looking dangerously close to bolting. If your lettuce suddenly starts sending up a tall central stalk, it’s preparing to bolt and you need to harvest right away before the lettuce turns bitter and inedible.
How to Keep Lettuce Crispy in the Fridge
Pulling your prized, homegrown lettuce from the fridge to discover it’s turned limp and unappetizing is a terrible feeling.
The good news is, it’s easy to store your lettuce the correct way so it stays Crispy and you can revive limp lettuce!
How to Store Lettuce
First, wash your lettuce. You can do this under running water, but soaking lettuce in a bowl of cold water is an easy, fantastic way to get it clean. If you have a large enough container, you can soak the entire head to help remove dirt, insects, and slugs.
If you have a large salad spinner, you can soak your lettuce in the spinner, itself. Place the spinner basket in the bowl, put the lettuce in the basket, then fill with water. When you’re ready to drain, lift the basket out and dump the dirty water. Rinse and/or repeat, if needed, if your lettuce is still dirty.
- This salad spinner is to be the best that you have used.
- Nonslip ring keeps bowl steady on countertop.
- 26.5 x 15cm H, 5qt 4.7L capacity
Dry your lettuce. If you have a whole head you simply can’t bear to cut into yet, gently shake it as dry. If you’re ready to cut into your romaine, or if you harvested individual leaves, cut them to size so they fit comfortably in your salad spinner. Spin them dry, then dump the accumulated water.
Don’t have a salad spinner? Pat your lettuce leaves dry with paper towels.
Transfer your lettuce to a container with a lid, or put the strainer basket back into your salad spinner. Moisten a few paper towels and place them on top of your lettuce, then close the container. Place it in the fridge, making sure to avoid areas (like at the back/top) that are prone to freezing.
How to Revive Limp Lettuce
If your lettuce goes limp, don’t toss it in the compost! Place the leaves in a bowl of ice water, or cool tap water, and put the bowl in the fridge. Make sure to avoid cold spots in your fridge that are prone to freezing. Leave your lettuce for at least half an hour – I prefer to soak it for 2+ hours, then dry it. Your lettuce should be rehydrated and ready to enjoy.
Extending Your Lettuce Harvest
Once you know how to harvest romaine lettuce, the next step is to extend the lettuce season if you want to be able to pick greens for a longer period of time.
Romaine is more likely to be both heat and cold tolerant than other types of lettuce, but it will still fade or bolt in hot weather and be killed by a hard frost. Lettuce, even romaine, prefers temperatures under 80ºF.
One way to extend the harvesting season is to plant several rounds of lettuce in succession. This can be done either by sowing seeds or planting seedlings every 3-4 weeks. This way, when one round of plants is done, another is growing up to take their place.
You can also provide lettuce with some shade by putting up shade cloth as the weather turns hot to delay bolting and give you a longer harvest period. If you use shade cloth, make sure to hang it 2-3 free above the ground to allow for air circulation.
- Shade Cloth With Grommets-Customized Sizes Available
- polyethylene, Lightweight and durability
- Mesh and breathable, summer shading cover
When cold weather threatens, try using floating row covers or a cold frame to insulate plants. Lettuce is usually more tolerant of cold than heat, so it’s fairly easy to extend the harvest into the first part of winter.
If you’re interested in extending your growing season and learning more about growing with row covers, make sure to check out Niki Jabbour’s books The Year-Round Gardener and Growing Undercover. I personally own both and find they are sufficiently different to make reading both of them worthwhile, if you have the opportunity. Either one is a great pick.
Growing Undercover goes into more detail about growing in a poly greenhouse, so it’s the one to read if you have or want a greenhouse. It also talks about shade cloth, which is very helpful for growing lettuce. Growing Under Cover is the more recent publication (late 2020 vs The Year-Round Gardener’s publication in 2011).
- Jabbour, Niki (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
- 216 Pages - 12/22/2020 (Publication Date) - Storey Publishing, LLC (Publisher)
The Year-Round Gardener has solid information about growing year round with simple protections and ideas for laying out your garden. It has a great crop list with suggestions on varieties to plant with early, middle, and late maturity dates so you can have fresh produce all season long.
Planting several varieties at the same time is an easy way to stagger your harvest without remembering to make several plantings on different days. (Need help remembering garden tasks? Grab your free printable garden planner.) For example, you could plant an oakleaf lettuce for an earlier harvest, romaine for a mid-harvest, and crisphead to finish off the season. The charts in this book are one of the most helpful garden book resources I’ve come across.
- The Year Round Vegetable Gardener How to Grow Your Own Food 365 Days a Year No Matter Where You Live
- Jabbour, Niki (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
If you want your salad garden to look ornamental as well as edible, try planting a mix of red, green, and speckled romaines. They are all easy to grow and have a wonderful, fresh flavor when harvested straight from your own garden!
Natasha Garcia-Lopez is an avoid home-gardener and proud owner of 88 acres of land in rural West Virginia. She was a member of the Association for Living History Farms and Agricultural Museums for many years and is currently enrolled in the Oregon State University Master Gardner Short Course program so she can better assist you with your gardening questions.She holds a certificate in natural skincare from the School of Natural Skincare.