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January 2020

Grow Mesclun for Delectable Mixed Greens

Often the crops you can grow in a garden turn the price calculations of the grocery shopper or the restaurant customer on their heads. Mesclun is one such case. The mixes of baby greens that are used to make a pricy salad or elegant stir-fries are fast and easy to grow.

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Use scissors or flower shears to cut sections of mesclun greens an inch or so above the ground. Let cut sections regrow before you cut it again. 

            Mesclun, a word from the old Provençal language, literally means mixture. It hails from the days when gardeners of Southern France and Italy did not always separate out seeds of leafy vegetables and plant them in rows, but sometimes sowed mixed seeds of different kinds of greens closely together, then cut sections of the resulting plants when they were still very small and threw them into a bowl to make a salad of the baby greens.

            Related terms are used in the marketing of mixed greens. Supermarkets sell “spring mix.” Restaurants serve “field greens.” There is no set list of component greens for these mixes, though some may be marketed as if there were.

            As a gardener, you will find seed packets of mixed lettuces, or of lettuce and greens with a more robust flavor, or only of the stronger-flavored greens. They may be labeled “mesclun,” or something else. I found one that is called “Quick Stirfry Blend,” consisting of various mustards and kales. Choose the seed mixture you like, depending on your preference for mild or robust flavor, and whether you want to serve them raw, in a salad, or cooked, in a stir-fry. (Be aware though, that plants that usually have strong flavors, such as chard or red mustard, will be fairly mild when they are eaten this young.)

            What all of these mixes have in common is that they are meant to be scatter-sown so that plants will come up close together, probably too close to grow into large plants, and then cut a half inch to an inch from the ground when they are 3 to 7 inches tall. You should be able to cut the plants and let them regrow several times. The ideal mix will include greens that grow at a similar rate, so you can have all of the varieties in the mix each time you cut.

            When seed marketers choose plants for these mixes, they usually include at least one red-leaved kind, for visual interest, and leaves with different shades of green, different shapes, and degrees of curliness. Some popular components are mizuna, a spiky-leaved mild mustard; tatsoi, an Asian mustard with thick white stems and small dark green leaves; arugula; and frisée, an endive with curly green leaves.

One plant that is not to be found in seed mixes for mesclun is radicchio, a red-leaved chicory. If it is in a grocery store’s “spring mix,” it was added separately, since the plant only forms the wonderful deep-red, white-veined leaves when it has made a mature head. Young radicchio leaves are green. So if you like this “green,” you will have to grow some separately.

You may, of course add to your salad the leaves of any other crop you have on hand. If it is winter, you may have some of the round leaves of wild miner’s (or Indian) lettuce, or the small, tender shoots of wild chickweed. Or you may want to combine a robustly-flavored mix with some mild lettuce you have purchased or have grown separately. Mix the ingredients you will enjoy seeing and eating together.

The best way to grow mesclun or other seed mixes to cut and use as baby greens, is in a container, in potting mix. This makes sure you are not growing any weeds along with your greens. While wild dandelion leaves and other wild plants were a part of some traditional mescluns, you will not want to cut something you shouldn’t eat.

I suggest that you make a 1 1/2 x 1 1/2-foot wooden box, 6-8 inches deep (with a few drainage holes drilled, and couple of 1 x 1-inch runners on the bottom to further help drainage). Sow the first seeds in all of the container space in about February, and resow as long as the weather is cool. (For coastal gardeners, this may mean from February well into fall. Inland gardeners will find summers too hot, but can catch a crop again in cooler fall weather.) Cut sections as needed, letting plants regrow as you cut another section. If you have two such boxes, you can have two different mixes and/or can stagger planting times for a more continuous supply.