Saving Lettuce Seeds

It all started in April, when a package arrived in the mail from my favourite seed company The Cottage Gardener.  As a personal challenge this year I decided to try to grow 2 different types of lettuce seed for them.

I have saved a few different types of seed before and had heard that lettuce can be a challenging one to clean.  Unfortunately I lost one of the 2 varieties I was growing partly due to disease and drought, but also because the plants that did make it just did not mature before frost. The other variety made it, but only barely as the same disease began wiping out the plants.

Things to know about saving lettuce seed:
-lettuce can take a long time to mature and bolt, so if you want it to go to seed you must plant it as early as you possibly can at the beginning of the season, or transplant it
-lettuce plants should be thinned 6-10 inches so they have enough room to go to seed
-if growing more than one variety of lettuce for seed, the variety should be isolated by at least 20 feet

Involved in saving lettuce seed is garden prep, planting, thinning, “rouging” out any strange or defective looking plants, letting the plants bolt, letting the seeds mature, harvesting, drying, and finally CLEANING.  By the cleaning stage you have put a lot of work into your seed and want to be sure to take good care of it.  I was quite paranoid of the seeds getting wet, of losing them, of the wind blowing them through the window of where we were drying them.

Seb and I spent a few hours here and there every week for the last month rubbing the lettuce seeds off the plants and into a bin, which we made sure to keep dry.  Finally, we had released most of the seeds from the plants, and our bin was full of dirt, plant debris, and seeds.  Unfortunately, since we had the pull the plants early because of disease, that meant more plant matter and dirt to clean out at the end.

We tried many different things, and ultimately a combination of screening and winnowing worked quite well (though we’re not entirely happy with the final product- there are still a few flecks of leaf and dirt in it, which is not ideal).

Here are some pictures of the various stages of lettuce:

Bed prep

One lettuce start to bolt

A casualty to grasshoppers- a horrible pest during the drought.

A lettuce well on it’s way to making seeds (first come the yellow flowers, then fluff, then seeds!)

The other lettuce variety just won’t bolt- and frost is on it’s way

One variety harvested, and left to dry indoors on a tarp for 1.5 months.

Seed cleaning time; screening and winnowing

Using a fan on the lowest setting to blow away some of the debris from the seeds.

This is the screen we used, from Hoffman Manufacturing- it worked okay, but the holes could have been shorter.

left: the chaff, right: the somewhat cleaner seeds

Every time we screen it gets a bit cleaner

About 1.3 pounds of lettuce seed! Hooray- our goal was 1 pound so it seems we reached it. If only we could get out those last few pieces of grit- anyone know what to do?

Next time I would:

-be more diligent about taking out diseased plants when I notice them

-try slitting the tops of mature lettuce heads that just won’t bolt; I read that this can help encourage them to flower

-if I have to harvest early before seeds are totally dry on the plant; instead of pulling up the plants, I will prune them from the base of the plant to avoid bringing dirt into the cleaning equation

-perhaps try transplanting?

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