Over a hundred years ago, before food plants were all hybrids, seed saving was part of farming and gardening. It offers so many gifts: nourishment, flavor, biodiversity, and climate resiliency. Saving seeds connects people and builds healthy communities. All while giving us a connection to the past. Over the decades, we’ve lost many techniques and knowledge about how to collect, share and keep viable seeds.
Empowered Gardening is bringing this vital practice back into use, check out this how-to video.
Before you save any seeds, enjoy the lettuce.
You can start harvesting or thinning the early seedlings – microgreens or wait until they are baby greens 4 to 6 inches in height. When you pick or collect, your lettuce is always a judgment call. Right before I eat I pick them. To me, the point of having a garden is freshness. Lettuce is likely healthier than you realize. It provides Vitamin-A, Vitamin-K and small amounts of many other healthy nutrients. It is low in fiber with high water content. Really, the perfect diet food.
How you harvest is totally up to you. I pick each outer leaf by hand or use scissors and cut your lettuce off at the soil. The plants will produce new leaves from the base and can be harvested a second time or third depending on your location and the weather. It usually takes 3 to 4 weeks. Or you can plant so that each head is 4 to 6 inches apart and or entire plants.
Mature lettuce can get bitter, and woody later in the season. Check your garden daily for ready-to-harvest leaves. Once the temp gets to about 75-80 degrees and sunny, lettuce doesn’t like it. It starts to grow tall branches or stalks, in planting terminology is bolting. Then it develops flower heads and eventually produces seed. But the great thing is you can grow lettuce in the shade or inside, save the seeds for another crop.
Once your lettuce bolts, leave a few plants in your garden bed, allow the flowers to bloom, and go to seed. Then dry out completely on the stalk. Depending on your climate and the weather, this could take a few weeks to a few months.
One lettuce plant can produce hundreds, if not thousands of seeds – you only need a few plants to save lots of free seeds. Once your lettuce heads are completely dry and fluffy (like a white dandelion seed head), the seeds are ready to harvest. You can handpick individual seed heads.
Once the pappuses, which are the scales or featherlike hairs, have emerged, but before they have fulfilled their seed dispersal function, a gardener can simply take hold of the pappuses to gather the seeds from each mature head. The downy looking part of a dandelion or thistle seed that aids in dispersal by the wind is a pappus those are attached to the seeds of plants of Compositae (or Asteraceae), (the daisy family) That family of plants is an extensive family of flowering plants that daisies and lettuce are a part. Composite flowers have many small flowers arranged in a head that looks like a single flower. The family has over 23,000 species, including the sunflowers, daisies, marigolds, chrysanthemums, and lettuce.
Each composite flower usually produces about 15 to 25 seeds, making this a simple, quick method for gathering enough seeds for home use. Shake the individual mature flowers onto a plate or even into another pot. More seeds can be collected easily as other heads on the plant mature.
Using another technique is to bend the flowering branches or stalks into a bag and gently shake them to dislodge mature seeds. This process is more efficient than hand-picking seeds from separate flowers. You can start when about one-third of the seed heads are mature. Repeat every week or two or until the desired quantity of seeds is collected.
Using another technique is the bag method, which I prefer, is you can bag all the flowers and wait. Cover the whole plant or fruiting branches with a bag and gently shake them to dislodge mature seeds. This process is more efficient than hand-picking or bagging seeds from the separate flowers. When about one-third of the seed heads are ripe or mature, start to pick.
Cleaning and Processing
Cleaning methods vary depending on how the seeds were collected and how much chaff (dry, scaly protective casing of the seeds) is present. If seeds are gathered by hand-harvesting or shaking plants, there should be relatively little chaff. Cleaning techniques can focus on separating the seed from the pappus.
Lightly rubbing the gathered material together between one’s hands or against a screen should detach the seeds from their pappuses without damaging them. On a larger scale, entire plants can be shaken or threshed, loosening the seeds from the chaff by rubbing the seed heads, or just shaking the plants over a container, or moving the seed heads on a tarp. After threshing (shaking), the seeds can be screened and winnowed, freeing (the seed) from the lighter particles of chaff, dirt, etc., by throwing it into the air and allowing the wind or a forced current of air to blow away impurities. It can be challenging to get rid of all the chaff with your lettuce seeds. But don’t worry, the chaff won’t affect your lettuce seeds’ ability to germinate.
Storage and Viability
When stored under dark, cool, dry conditions, your lettuce seeds can remain viable for six or more years.