How My Garden Made Me Sick

Yesterday, I learned what bolting is.

Bolting: What my stomach contents wanted to do all afternoon and last night after eating a big salad for lunch made from the romaine I've been growing the backyard this summer.

We planted 4 each of romaine and red leaf lettuce from seedlings this spring for the first time and they both did beautifully, continuously producing scrumptuously crisp and tasty leaves for us to eat for the past month or so. Having no real experience with lettuce, I wasn't sure if I should cut a whole head and bring it in to the kitchen- would that kill the plant, would it resprout? So, I would just keep tearing only the leaves I needed for the day off the bottom of the head in the hopes that the center would continue producing. That plan seemed to work and I had fresh lettuce for sandwiches and salad every day for a long time. I signed up for the green salad at all the potlucks and we couldn't even begin to consume all of the lettuce we were producing with our little family of 3, one of whom won't eat lettuce.

Then a couple weeks ago I noticed that the romaine was suddenly growing tall instead of just bushy. It shot up a long stem between each set of leaves and kept stretching out its height. I had no idea what that meant but figured it signaled that the lettuce was moving on to some new phase of life and maybe wouldn't produce much longer. But I kept eating it and it tasted fine. Then the red leaf shot up flowers and when I mentioned it to friends they said "yeah, you can't let the lettuce go to seed". But no one could actually tell me why when I asked. So, I chopped off the flower stalk in the hopes that I could force the lettuce to keep producing leaves and kept eating it.

Yesterday I was thinking about how the lettuce plants were probably ready to reproduce and would soon stop making new leaves and would die, so I should enjoy them while I can, so I made this big salad for lunch from the romaine, which looked closer to death than the red leaf. AFTER I enjoyed my salad, I decided to finally look this up and try to understand more about growing lettuce. It was only after some searching and many more unexplained "you shouldn't let the lettuce go to seed" statements, that I finally found out what was going on.

It turns out that my lettuce has been bolting- that's the name for when it shoots up and puts out flowers to make seed. It's like it's trying to "leave" your garden. And that lettuce will naturally bolt after some time and you can't stop or reverse it, maybe just slow it down a little by cutting off its flowers like I did. And, more importantly, that as it bolts, it will start producing bitter compounds in the leaves and becomes inedible. And that sometimes it will bolt early if it's under stress- if it becomes too hot, too dry, too crowded. And that if you let it go to seed, you'll end up with seeds that you wouldn't want to plant because they have a tendency to bolt early or you'll end up with seeds scattered in your soil that will become lettuce weeds in other areas of your garden plot. And you shouldn't put the seeds in your compost for the same reason. And that people spend a lot of energy cultivating and taking care of strains of lettuce that last as long as possible before bolting and those are the best seeds to buy.

Well, it was nice to learn about how to garden lettuce after I had already gardened it. And really good to know about the bitter compounds after I had that big salad because then when an hour or so later I started feeling nauseated and that went on all day and all night, at least I knew why! I'm pretty sure I toxified myself slightly yesterday with my homegrown bolted romaine lettuce. But that's what I call hands-on learning!

We unceremoniously pulled all the lettuce up last night and plopped it in the compost pile. Moving on to other garden adventures...

1 comment:

Anna Moli said...

Ah so that’s what’s happening to my lettuce... thanks for this posh random stranger on the internet!