I love salads, and would like to know more about growing and using salad herbs. Which ones are best, and how do I handle them so they don’t turn mushy?
We tend to think of culinary herbs as seasonings, but for several hundred years, Europeans have enjoyed a special group of plants as “sallet” herbs, grown especially for eating raw after first dipping them into a dish of salt. Many of these herbs, such as arugula, sorrel and dandelion, taste best when the leaves are quite young, so salads have historically been regarded as a special treat of spring. In addition to their fresh flavors, many spring greens are loaded with vitamins A and C, so their renown as nutritional pick-me-ups is well deserved.
A long list of herbs can be added to salads, including all types of parsley, fennel and chives. The cucumber-flavored young leaves of salad burnet work well in summer salads, and in the fall I like to grow English watercress, which becomes sweeter and crisper as autumn turns to winter. But in late spring and early summer, it is best to take a French approach to salad herbs by growing mixtures of salad-worthy plants known as mesclun. You can buy mesclun in seed packets, or make up a mixture of seeds yourself. Common salad herbs included in mesclun include arugula, chervil, endive, leaf lettuce, mustard greens and parsley, but mesclun packets are often full of surprises. Mail-order seed companies such as Cook’s Garden (www.CooksGarden.com) sell several mesclun mixtures that vary in color, flavor and spiciness. These mixtures are an excellent way to discover new salad herbs for your garden such as mizuna (a Japanese mustard), cutting celery and mache, a cold-hardy leafy green that will grow through the winter in Zones 6 to 9.
Mesclun is meant to be harvested young, as baby greens, and most of the plants in mesclun mixtures have very shallow roots. So, you can grow mesclun in shallow containers only 3 inches deep, or as a pretty edging in your herb garden. Make two or three small sowings a week apart in spring, starting as soon as your last hard freeze is over. Mesclun mixtures taste best when grown in cool weather, so unless you live in a cool climate, grow mesclun only during cooler times of the year.
Sow the seeds by sprinkling them over the top of damp, fertile soil, so the seeds fall about one-half inch apart. Use your hands to press them into soil crevices. Many leafy greens need light to germinate, so take care that you do not plant the seeds too deep. When kept constantly moist, little seedlings should appear within days. Keep a watering can handy to lightly dampen the bed daily if needed because baby greens that grow quickly without being exposed to excessive heat or dryness, have the best flavor.
You can start harvesting your salad herbs after only three weeks. To preserve their texture, get out of bed early and cut them first thing in the morning. Use a sharp knife or scissors to lop off the leaves 1 inch above the soil line. Immediately rinse the leaves with cool water, shake or spin off the excess drops, and place the leaves in a plastic bag in your refrigerator.
Gently dry the greens by pressing them lightly between paper towels or a clean kitchen towel before you make your salad. Light vinaigrette dressings are often best, but my favorite spring salad involves salad herbs tossed with sliced strawberries, feta cheese and toasted walnuts, topped with yogurt that has been lightly sweetened with honey.
As for those stubs left behind after you harvest your mesclun, they will grow a second cutting if you spoil them with plenty of water and a booster feeding with a water-soluble plant food.
Many salad herbs become bitter when days grow long and warm, so be sure to grow plenty of basil, salad burnet and parsley for mixing with tomatoes and cucumbers in summertime salads. When the weather cools in late summer and fall, you will have a second chance to grow tender young salad herbs.
Barbara Pleasant is a contributing editor to The Herb Companion and author of several books, including The Whole Herb (available on our website at www.HerbCompanion.com).