Growing Salad Herbs

TOPICAL GARDENING TIPS


| April/May 2005



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GREEN PATCH

Question:

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?

Answer:

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.





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