Lettuce is one of the easiest plants to grow in the garden (or containers), but it’s also easy for it to go from sweet and juicy to bitter very quickly.
As someone who tends to neglect the garden, I know all about bitter lettuce. The sub-tropical climate doesn’t help this cool climate loving plant either.
But if I’m going to go to the trouble of planting and tending it, I’m not going to waste the darn stuff! If it’s too bitter to eat raw, I’ve found it palatable eaten cooked, just like wilted spinach.
If you can prevent your lettuce going bitter, all the better. But if it does bolt there are some things you can do to minimise the bitterness.
There are several situations that can cause lettuce to go bitter. Heat is one. Water stress is another. Lettuce likes a regular feed – nutrition stress will also turn it bitter. However, too much nitrogen is not much good either. Which is ok – that means less work. An occasional feed is sufficient.
The other factor is age – the older the plant the more bitter it grows. I like to pick just a few leaves off here and there for my salad, but eventually you have to pick the whole plant or let it go to seed because the older it gets, the less palatable it becomes.
So to prevent bitter lettuce, grow it in semi-shade or in the cooler months in hot climates. You can also choose varieties that are best suited to your climate. Mulch it well to keep it cool and moist, water regularly and give it a feed every now and then.
There are also some tricks to picking lettuce to minimise the bitterness.
Pick your lettuce in the morning after it’s had the night to recover from the hot sun. Giving it a bit of water in the evening will also help. Immerse your leaves in a bowl of cold water for a 10 minutes or so, then dry and place in the fridge for a few hours.
The other tip is to wait until after it rains to pick your lettuce. Lettuce can go from bitter to sweet after a good shower (unless it’s really old). There’s nothing like real rain for the garden – tap water just isn’t the same.
If all else fails, you can cook your lettuce, which helps remove the bitterness. I find that when cooking lettuce, rather than eating a plate full of bitter greens, it’s better to mix it up with something sweeter, like spinach or silverbeet.
Some mixed wilted greens with mushrooms and other veg (there’s asparagus in the picture) served under a scrambled egg for breakfast is a lovely way to enjoy lettuce that’s past its prime, without letting it go to waste.
So if your lettuce is going bitter, don’t throw it in the compost just yet. See if you can revive it and if not, cook it. There’s life in those greens yet.
What’s your garden rescue story?