Cleaning Lettuce Seed

Lettuce is the other seeed crop that took me years to learn how to clean well (radishes being the first).

The basics are like other dry seeded crops (thresh, screen and winnow ad nauseam) but to do a good job I’ve had to pay a lot of attention to the threshing and final screening.

(If you want to read more about growing lettuce for seed : growing lettuce seed under field tunnels and growing out crossed-up lettuce seed)

Harvesting Lettuce Seed

I keep a regular eye on the lettuce plants to catch them as they flower.

After flowering, the lettuce blooms close up.

A couple of weeks later, the flowers open again to reveal little fluffies at the end of mature seed (kind of like dandelions).

Since the seed doesn’t all mature at once, some folks walk their lettuce patch every couple days and shake the plants into bins or paper backets to collect the seed. I’ve tried this approach but don’t have the time to handle the plants this regularly.

Instead, when about 1/2 the flowers are mature, I harvest the whole plant.

I cut the plants above the roots (keeping dirt in the garden!), pile them in bins, and bring them back to the barn.

Drying Lettuce Seed Plants

I spread the lettuce plants out on tarps with a fan blowing air over them. I rotate the plants at least once a day so that the leaves dry down rather than rot.

If I have a little lots, I dry them upside down in a bucket.

The lettuce plants usually dry for 1-2 months before I process the seed. By this time the plants are completely dry and most of the seed has matured.

Threshing Lettuce Seed

Whereas we now stomp most seed crops to thresh them, we put on kid gloves to handle lettuce.

We rub the plants vigorously between our hands so the flowers fall apart dropping the seed and fluff.

This leaves the stems bare. I try not to break many stem pieces into the mix as they can be tough to later extract.

Screening Lettuce Seed (First Time)

I usually skip the 1/2″ screen and move right to the 1/4″ screen.

I separate the seed and chaff into the bin below and leave any stem on the screen. This is where cleaning lettuce seed gets tricky because the chaff is similar in weight to the seed and the fluff doesn’t seem to want to let go.

At this point I turn to more specialized equipment.

Screening Lettuce Seed (SeconD Time)

This is my favorite colander. The size of the holes are perfect for little oblong seeds (such as lettuce).

I rub the chaff-seed mix through.

This extracts the coarse material. I use this screen a few times and wind up with seed and a bit of fluff.

Winnowing Lettuce Seed

At this point I winnow delicately. If the seed is still dirty. I winnow again a bit more aggressively and perhaps run the seed through my colander another time.

One of the biggest tricks I’ve learned is to not try to save every last seed. When I accept losing a bit of seed, I can get the remaining seed much cleaner.

This is about as clean as I can get most lots with screens and fans. I pick out some of the remaining bits but have to live with the rest.

I apologize for the delay in getting this post up (Brian Creelman has been asking me to post about lettuce for nearly a year.)

Some of the delay is because I’m not much of a lettuce seed man – I’ve often had trouble getting lettuce seed crops to maturity and even though I’ve been cleaning lettuce seed 10 years, I still can’t get it as clean as most other seed. I’m currently looking into some seed screens from Hoffman Manufacturing. If these work out maybe I’ll become a lettuce seed cleaning maniac. I’ll keep you posted!

The rest of the delay is that I’ve been conference and workshop hopping this past month and any my spare time has been going into our new website. I’ll tell you guys more about all that soon …

8 thoughts on “Cleaning Lettuce Seed

  1. I came across your post and it seems like an awful lot of work for the price of a package of seeds. Nonetheless, I am going to give it a try. Wish me luck 🙂

  2. its not the price of a pack of seeds that’s the issue it is saving your own seeds so as not to be dependent on having to purchase the seeds from someone else. In case one day we can’t run out and buy more.

  3. Here’s what *I* did to wash my seeds. radishes, watermelon, and lettuce worked perfectly this way. you note the watermelon seeds went directly into the washing stage.

    I let the plants naturally dry out and harvested the whole plant into a paper bag upside-down.

    i then took the seed parts off and threw away the stems. From there I broke apart the seed pods or blooms to get access to the seeds themselves. At this stage they looked just like your colander full of seeds but a little more seed and less fluff.

    From here I went directly to the kitchen sink and running cold water with a tall container. The fluff will float to the top, the seeds will be completely washed off, and the immature seeds will float to the surface leaving only seeds that will germinate on the bottom of the container. clean fluff off the top into the garbage can and let the slow moving water flow past the seeds while you mix them with your hands.

    please note that for watermelon and other melon type seeds, I had to actually wash them with mild dishwashing detergent a little after and then re-rinse them to get the sticky off the seeds.

    let the seeds fall back to the bottom before draining the water and it may be a good idea to filter them from the water using a colander lined with paper towels.

    as quickly as you can, dry the seeds off under forced air (an old computer fan will work, as long as you get constant air flow) and draining on paper towels in a single layer. make sure you rub your hands over them to turn them and spread them out every half hour or so until they all dry out.

    my radish, cantaloupe, watermelon, and bean seeds worked great this way. the lettuce was dried a LOT more than the rest to ensure complete drying and was packed in a jar with a little baking soda and an air dryer from a medicine bottle to make sure they are completely dry. I see no changes in color of the seeds from the day i washed them but they have a strong odor to them similar to mildew.

    I spread a few out on the ground just before the latest snow hit yesterday and hopefully the birds don’t eat them. we’ll see if they germinate. If I get a LOT of seeds to germinate, the odor was nothing more than the natural odor of “black seeded simpson” lettuce seeds.

    the bottom line is: don’t throw away your pumpkin, cantaloupe, or watermelon seeds from the ones you buy at the store. save them and wash them to get good usable seeds. This may even work with peppers.


    1. Hi,

      Thanks for sharing your seed cleaning techniques.

      One note about growing out seed saved from Cucurbits (Squash, Melons, Cantaloupes, …) from the grocery store: since you don’t know how the fruit was produced, you can’t tell whether they might have been cross-pollinated. As such, you might get unwanted off-types from the seed.

      Happy seed saving,

    1. I did purchase seed screens from Hoffman. I really like them.

      When I ordered there was a sale on screens. $5 per screen with no frame. I asked the customer service rep to put together 10 screens of different sizes with at least one 5/16″ slot for lettuce. If you keep an eye on there website they may have a similar special in the future.

Leave a Reply