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).