Lettuce is one of the most popular crops for home gardeners. It’s easy to grow, and there’s a plethora of gorgeous and tasty varieties to include in your veggie patch. That said, lettuce is a cool-weather crop, and once the warm temperatures and long days of summer arrive, lettuce plants go to flower and set seed. Most gardeners rip out their lettuce plants when they bolt. If you do this, you’re missing a great opportunity. Here are five things to do with bolted lettuce.
1. Donate Bolted Lettuce to an Animal Shelter
Bunnies, Guinea pigs and many species of birds enjoy munching on lettuce leaves, even after the plants have gone to flower and are too bitter for human consumption. A former client had a canary who was quite fond of nibbling on the summer lettuce leaves she would feed it every morning.
2. Cut Plants Back to the Ground; Let Them Resprout
This is my favorite thing to do with the bolted lettuce in my garden. Instead of pulling the plants out by the roots, simply cut the tops off and leave the roots intact. The stump will resprout when temperatures cool later in the season and go on to produce a second crop of lettuce in the late summer or fall.
3. Let Plants Flower for Beneficial Insects and Pollinators
Lettuce blossoms are very attractive to many species of parasitic wasps, syrphid flies and other beneficial insects that help gardeners control pests in the landscape. Some species of pollinators nectar on them as well. Lettuce flowers will be buzzing with insect activity soon after they open, and they’ll continue to bloom for many weeks.
4. Collect the Seeds for Next Year’s Garden
Lettuce plants are largely self-pollinating, so if you save the seeds of open-pollinated, heirloom lettuce varieties, there’s a good chance the seeds will come true-to-type (meaning you’ll get the same variety when you plant those collected seeds into next year’s garden). I save seeds from all my heirloom lettuces because even if they don’t come true-to-type, the results are still delicious. Plus, I often end up with some very unique coloration and leaf forms.
5. Use Bolted Lettuce as a Trap Crop
Slugs, earwigs and pill bugs much prefer lettuce to most other garden crops. If you want to keep these leaf-marring insects off broccoli, cabbage and other productive crops, just allow your bolted lettuce plants to stay right where they are. Sprinkle an iron phosphate-based slug bait, such as Sluggo or Escar-Go, between the lettuce rows to get a grip on slug numbers.
If you’re not willing or able to do any of these, there’s always the compost pile. Bolted lettuce plants are a great nitrogen source for the compost bin, especially when they’re used in combination with carbon sources such as autumn leaves and straw.