How to Save Lettuce Seeds From Your Garden

"Tango" lettuce flower
Dwight Sipler/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

If you find that you grow a lot of lettuce or mesclun, saving your own seeds might be something you want to consider. Here are a few reasons you might want to start saving your own seed:

  • You have found some heirloom varieties that you really like, and you want to make sure you'll be able to grow them again.
  • Saving your own seed saves you money.
  • Over time, the seed you save from your own garden grows plants that are uniquely adapted to the conditions in your garden.

Before You Decide to Save Lettuce Seeds

Before you decide to go to the effort of saving your lettuce seeds, there are a few things to keep in mind.

Be sure you are saving seeds from open-pollinated varieties.  Open-pollinated or heirloom varieties are those that will grow true from seed saved from plants you are growing in your garden. Hybrid seeds, on the other hand, will not grow into the same plants you save them from. If your lettuce was labeled "heirloom" or "open pollinated," chances are good that you can save seed successfully. If, however, they are labeled as a hybrid, saving seed from them is a crap shoot; there's no telling what you may end up with.

You will have to watch the unattractive process of lettuce plants going to seed. Small, tender lettuce leaves are pretty to look at and delicious to eat. But lettuce plants can be gangly and ugly when they are bolting (sending up a flower stalk and going to seed). The blooms resemble small dandelions, and the plants tend to get quite tall. If aesthetics are important in your vegetable garden, then this is something to keep in mind. You'll be looking at bolting lettuce plants for several weeks while you wait for the seed to ripen.

You don't need many plants. One lettuce plant will provide more than enough seed for most gardeners to grow the following season. Even if bolting lettuce plants are not the most beautiful thing to grow in your garden, you really don't need rows and rows of them. One or two will be plenty, and this makes it easier to maybe camouflage them while you're waiting for the seed to ripen.

How to Save Lettuce Seeds

Most lettuces start to bolt when the temperature gets too hot. Once the plant starts sending up its seed stalk, the leaves aren't worth eating; they become bitter and tough. It also means that the plant is getting ready to bloom.

The plants will send up their flower stalks, and eventually, you'll have clusters of small yellow flowers that, as mentioned above, resemble tiny dandelions. And the resemblance doesn't end there. Once the seeds have ripened, they produce "fluff," much like a dandelion does.

If you are growing more than one variety of lettuce, and they are blooming at the same time, you may want to use an isolation method to prevent them from crossing. You can simply place a bag or floating row cover over the flower stalks, or you can construct a cage covered in a screen to cover the entire plant and isolate it from others. If they are planted more than 25 feet apart, you generally don't need to worry about crossing.

The seed will take anywhere from twelve to twenty-four days after blooming to ripen.

Harvesting Lettuce Seeds

Once the flower heads are fluffy and starting to look dry, it's time to harvest. There are a couple of ways to do this. You can hold a paper bag near the plant, and shake the flower head over it each day until most of the ripened seed has been harvested. You can, alternatively, wait until most of the seed heads look ready to harvest, remove the entire flower stalk, and shake it over a bucket or tub to dislodge any fully-ripened seed.

Both ways work well, though the first method takes a bit more time and effort. The second method is a little less efficient since you lose some seed since you are pulling the plant out before the seeds are all ripe, but it takes less effort.

When you harvest, most of the volume of what you collect is fluff and chaff. You'll want to remove this before you store your seed. The easiest way to do this is to gently run a fan near your seeds, which you've poured into a shallow tray or dish. The breeze from the fan will gently blow away the fluff and chaff. You can do this on a smaller scale by placing the seeds and chaff in a bowl or saucer and blowing gently on it. Once you have the chaff removed, label your seeds, and store them in a cool, dry place.

Saving your own lettuce seed is easy, inexpensive, and a great way to ensure that you can keep growing your favorite varieties.