Lettuce is one of the most versatile and valuable crops to grow in a polytunnel in the UK. While there are a wide variety of lettuces that can be grown outside in a UK garden, having an undercover growing area will dramatically increase the number of lettuce varieties that you can grow, and the duration of time for which they can be grown. What is more, having a polytunnel will make it far easier for gardeners to protect their lettuce crops from pests such as slugs or snails, and inclement weather.
Selecting Lettuce Seeds For a UK Garden
The first stage in growing lettuce successfully in the UK is, of course, choosing your lettuce seeds. It is relatively easy to grow a wide range of lettuce types. However, choosing the right ones for you is key to success in your growing endeavours. It is important to consider:
- The climate,microclimate,temperatures and weather conditions where you live.
- Your soil type and soil conditions within your polytunnel or in other growing areas in your garden.
- Your personal preferences with regard to taste, and how you plan to use the lettuce you grow.
- Whether you plan to save the seeds from your lettuce to replant the following year. (If you do, you will have to choose heirloom or heritage varieties rather than hybrid F1 types, which will not come true from seed.)
Different Types of Lettuce for the UK:
To help you make your decisions about which types of lettuce to grow, let’s take a look at the most common lettuce varieties eaten and grown in the UK:
Types of lettuce are usually divided into four different groups. These differ in a number of characteristics, including how easily they can be grown, their taste, texture and nutritional content. These four groups are: Cos (Romaine) lettuce, Butterhead, Loose Leaf and Iceberg (also known as Crisphead). Below, you will find details of each of these groups, along with examples of lettuces within each one that are commonly grown in the British Isles.
Cos or Romaine Lettuce
This is one of the most popular forms for lettuce in the UK. Here, they are mostly known as Cos lettuces, while in the US and France, and elsewhere, they are usually known as Romaine. This is the oldest cultivar group of lettuces commonly grown here.
Cos lettuces have a tight and upright formation. They are relatively crisp, with lighter inner leaves and somewhat darker green outer ones. Cos lettuces, like other lettuces, are usually eaten raw,in salads. They are an ingredient in Caesar salad, for example. However, they can also be grilled. This type of lettuce can withstand cooking better than other lettuce types.
These lettuces are easy to cultivate here in the UK. They can be particularly well suited to polytunnel growing. This is because they can often better withstand warmer conditions than many other types of lettuce.
Cos Types of Lettuce for the UK:
Some good Cos types to consider growing here in the UK include:
- Balloon (An old variety that grows larger than many other Cos lettuces.)
- Claremont (Great upright shape, crisp and mildew resistant.)
- Exbury (An open-hearted type with cherry red leaves that look lovely in a salad.)
- Frisco ( A looser-head type popular commercially. This type has good bolt resistance.)
- Little Gem (A favourite with UK gardeners for its superb disease resistance, taste and reliability.)
- Lobjoits Green (A compact, crisp-centred lettuce which dates back to the 1950s.)
- Pandero (An excellent red variety that is compact and great for small spaces.)
- TinTin (Similar to little gem but somewhat larger, this type is crisp and its crinkled leaves give great texture.)
- Unrivalled (A great Cos lettuce for autumn/winter growing, with great ability to withstand colder temperatures.)
- Winter Density (One of the best Cos lettuces for winter growing, leaves are open and sweet.)
The rosette-like formation of a butterhead lettuce makes this type an attractive form. These lettuces can be recognised by their rose-petal like leaves. They sometimes form heads at the centre, but these are not as crisp as those found on Cos or Iceberg types. Generally, these types are very flavoursome and nutritious, with pleasant, generally sweet taste.
One of the good things about lettuces of this type is that they are easier and faster to grow than Cos and Iceberg types. Another positive is that there are plenty of old varieties still available to try, making it easier to diversify your crops and maintain lettuce crops that are tasty and healthy to eat.
These are also easy to grow here in the UK. They mature faster than Cos or Iceberg types and are also able to withstand a greater range of temperatures. They can withstand both colder temperatures and hotter weather and there are types suited to growing throughout most of the year.
Butterhead Types of Lettuce for the UK:
Some good Butterhead lettuces for UK gardeners include:
- All Year Round (The classic butterhead type lettuce, with good taste, colour and texture. It can be grown spring to late summer and earlier and later with protection.)
- Analena (Large, fresh, green heads and excellent flavour, these lettuces also have good bolt resistance.)
- Arctic King (One of the hardiest butterhead types, best sown in autumn and harvested a few leaves at a time in the spring.)
- Clarion (A typical butterhead lettuce with light green, tasty leaves and good disease resistance.)
- Diana (An excellent choice for summer-long cropping,with good bolt resistance.)
- Marvel of Four Seasons (A colourful French variety dating back to Victorian times.)
- Nansen’s Noordpool ( An excellent wintering variety of butterhead lettuce.)
- Roxy (An attractive variety with bronze leaf tips, which can bring visual and taste interest to a salad.)
- Sangria (A green to purple red coloured lettuce with good taste and texture.)
- Tom Thumb (One of the most popular types of lettuce in the UK, dating back to the erly 1800s.)
Loose Leaf Lettuce
Seed selections with a mix of different loose leaf lettuce varieties are ideal for beginners. These mixes provide a range of leafy vegetables for salads and different varieties can be grown throughout the whole year. One of the fantastic things about these lettuce mixes is that they can be cut and will grow back to be harvested again, offering great value for money.
Loose leaf lettuce types do not form hearts but rather have leaves loosely arranged around a centre. Not only do these types grow incredibly quickly, and provide a harvest over a long period, they also offer a huge variety of different textures, colours, shapes and tastes.
Loose Leaf Types of Lettuce for the UK:
Some of the best loose leaf options to try in the UK are:
- Bijou (Purple and frilly, this is easy to grow and to harvest.)
- Black Seeded Simpson (One of the best-tasting heritage varieties in the UK, this is over 300 years old and can be grown almost all year.)
- Catalogna (An interesting leaf shape makes this a good choice for a mixed salad.)
- Cocarde ( Red, bronze leaf tips and oak shaped leaves make this another attractive option.)
- Delicato (Popular for its decorative, deep red leaves with good taste and texture.)
- Frillice (As the name suggests, this is a frilly leafed lettuce. It is also small and a good choice for container gardens.)
- Lollo Rossa (Highly decorative and delicious – one of the most popular loose leaf options for the UK.)
- Mazurosso (Looks and tastes great and also has good mildew resistance.)
- Red Salad Bowl (Another attractive option with red/bronze tipped leaves.)
Iceberg lettuces are by far the most challenging type of lettuce to grow in the UK. These are the ubiquitous round globe lettuces sold in supermarkets. They dominated the market for bought salad in the latter part of the 20th Century, with their crispness and very mild taste. However, a growing awareness of their lack of nutritional content, along with a growing desire for local produce means that other lettuce types have now regained prominence in the market.
While growing undercover, in a polytunnel, can make it easier to attempt to grow these types, you will generally find that what you can produce will not rival those large, perfect globes found in the shops. For this reason, we recommend that you focus on other lettuce types that grow better in the UK when planning your garden.
Whichever lettuces you choose to grow, you should take care to choose the right varieties for where you live, paying attention to when each is best planted and what conditions it will need. Check out our lettuce grow guide to find out more, and feel free to leave your own suggestions and tips in the comments below.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.