Vegetables

Romaine Lettuce With a Bare Stem

In the home garden, Romaine lettuce is best used by harvesting leaves from the base, a few at a time. Photo: homeguides.sfgate.com

Question: I have beautiful romaine lettuce plants that produce abundantly. I’ve been harvesting the outer leaves only and all is well so far. However, the bare lower stem is getting longer and the plants look less solid to me. I’m afraid they might snap off. What should I do? Should I mound some earth around the base the plant to shore it up?

O. Fiset

Answer: Romaine or cos lettuce is, in many ways, the easiest lettuce to grow.

Pick the lower leaves only, leaving the center intact, for a very long season of harvest. Photo: http://www.epicgardening.com

More heat-resistant than other lettuces, very resistant to slugs and extremely slow to bolt (go to seed), romaine lettuce will often produce leaves all summer if you harvest them the way you’ve been doing, by picking only the outer leaves of the plant, those at its base, a few at a time, like you would with Swiss chard. 

This may fly in the face of the market garden tradition of letting the romaine lettuce mature, then harvesting it all at once by cutting it off at the base, which puts an end to the plant’s life, but then, you’re not a market gardener, are you? In the home garden, picking romaine lettuce a few leaves at a time is a perfectly viable way of harvesting fresh lettuce over a much longer period.

Over time, a bare lower stem becomes very apparent. Photo: leaf.believegood.site

The flaw with this method is that you end up defoliating the lower stem over time, leaving the lettuce plant looking quite bare and top-heavy … although it’s not nearly as fragile as it may look.

If so, mounding up soil around the stem won’t give you much: lettuce doesn’t really root from the stem when you cover it with soil. However, what you can do is to cut the plant about an inch (2 to 3 cm) above the ground. (You need to leave a short stub.) This will stimulate the plant to regrow from the base and will soon give rise to new shoots that will become a source of fresh leaves. This is called the cut and come again method and it will work on most lettuces.

Note that cutting back must be done before the plant starts to go to seed (that is, before the flowering stem begins to lengthen and leaves become bitter and produce milky white sap). Once the plant has started going to seed, the harvest of that particular plant is over and you’ll have to start new plants from seed.

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. After studies at the University of Toronto and Laval University where he obtained his B.A. in modern languages in 1978, he succeeded in combining his language skills with his passion for gardening in a novel career as a garden writer and lecturer. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He is a regular contributor to and horticultural consultant for Fleurs, Plantes, Jardins garden magazine and has written for many other garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening, Rebecca’s Garden and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 50 other titles in English and French. He can be seen in Quebec on French-language television and was notably a regular collaborator for 7 years on the TV shows Fleurs et Jardins and Salut Bonjour Weekend. He is the President of the Garden Writers Association Foundation and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. An avid proponent of garden tourism, he has lead garden tours throughout Canada and to the gardens of over 30 countries over the last 30 years. He presently resides in Quebec City, Quebec.

2 comments on “Romaine Lettuce With a Bare Stem

  1. Christine Lemieux

    Good to know!

  2. Cut and come again does not work for us so well. We just pull them out, wait through this part of summer and then start over. It does not get too warm for them, but the aridity stresses the lettuce enough to stimulate bolting. However, it could work if we grew the lettuce in landscape situations were it would not get so stressed by the aridity. I just don’t do that.

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