Space-saving methods of growing this popular mix of lettuces and herbs … organically.
Not so long ago, the word mesclun was unknown to everyone but hippies hard of hearing. Now the mix of garden greens is a favorite among gourmet restaurants and gardeners who love the crisp, occasionally spicy taste of loose leaf lettuces. As grown in its place of origin — Provencal, France — mesclun is a specific mix of chervil, arugula, lettuces and endive. In American gardens, anything goes: red and green loose leafs, Asian greens, kale, even radicchio.
One of our favorite gardening practices — inspired by Mel Bartholomew’s now-classic Square-Foot Gardening — is to stake out a two-by-two foot square in the garden and freely sow a mesculun mix, either one purchased ready-to-go or one we’ve mixed ourselves from favorite greens (deer tongue, rosso, black-seeded Simpson, mizuna , kale, Asian mustard, arugula and garden cress). We sow them into the corners and across the middle. A quick raking and tamping, followed by a thorough watering, is enough to get them growing.
Once the garden greens start to come up, we thin as possible. The beauty of the system is that different greens germinate at different times and grow at different rates. The earliest germinators shade the slower plants until those larger greens are harvested. Then the slower greens grow up to take their place. For those with the patience, finger-harvesting mixed greens like this can provide fresh, different salads over a period of weeks. Even the traditional method of harvest — cropping with scissors — leaves just enough growth for new plants to emerge. As lettuce seed packages everywhere say, “cut and come again.” It’s best to harvest when they’re small — baby greens, as they’re sold in markets. That’s when they’re at their most delicate and tasty.
The shading effect, while also conserving moisture, helps extends your greens-growing season into the heat of summer by discouraging plants to go to seed. One problem: it also gives cover to slugs. The smallness of the gardening square makes them easy to find with a little effort. Planting this way every two and three weeks will yield a bounty of greens all through the season. And it will provide your family with delicious, varietal salads which even kids will love, especially if you teach them to hunt for and identify their various components. “Look, mom. Arugula!”