1997 -- Year of the Mesclun

Mesclun is a mix of leaf lettuces, herbs, and tender greens. Various mixes are sold by seed companies. These mixes offer gardeners complete salads within a single package. Mixes are packaged with maturity in mind. Most plant varieties within a given mixture mature at roughly the same time. Since mesclun doesn't require a great deal of space, it is ideal for gardeners with limited space or those gardening in containers.

Mixes vary tremendously in flavor. Mild mixes combine familiar types of leaf lettuce with greens such as mizuna, purslane and chervil. Some have a peppery bite with cresses, Asian mustards, red kale, arugula, red and green chicories, or endive. Besides being a treat for the tastebuds, mesclun is also a treat for the eye. Various shades of green may be combined with reds and bronzes. Leaf textures may be soft and rounded to sharply serrated.

Plant only as much mesclun as you can eat regularly. A 2 foot by 2 foot block should provide enough for several salads over the course of a week. Succession plantings (sowing seeds weekly) in the spring work well for this type of crop. Additional plantings can be made in late summer and early fall. Best flavor and tenderness comes from quick growth, so moisture, soil preparation, and weed control are critical. When sowing seed in rows, make a furrow 1/4 inch deep, sow seed, then cover the furrow. If you are sowing in blocks, simply scatter the seeds, then cover with about 1/4 inch of fine soil or compost. After germination, thin seedlings to a final plant stand of about an inch apart. Thinned sprouts can be added to salads so accidental overplanting isn't necessarily a waste of seed. Many of the crops grown in mesclun mixes are shallow rooted and require regular watering. Soil should remain moist but not soggy.

Harvest mesclun by the cut-and-come-again method. When greens are about 4 to 6 inches long, snip them off with a scissors, about 1 inch above the soil. Cutting at this level will not damage the crown of the plants. Clear-cut an entire area at a time. After harvest, water and lightly fertilize the area to encourage vigorous regrowth. Depending on weather conditions, this area should be ready for harvest again within a month. Most planting blocks yield about 3 or 4 harvests a season. Once harvested, rinse the leaves in cool water to remove dust or dirt. Examine the greens for weeds or insects and drain on towels or pat dry. Use as soon as possible. If it isn't possible to use all the mesclun at once, wrap the leaves gently in slightly damp towels, seal in a plastic bag and place in the refrigerator. If handled and stored properly, greens should stay fresh for several days. If harvested mesclun becomes slightly wilted, it can be revived by placing in cool water. Crisping will take ten to fifteen minutes.

Mesclun became popular in France, where lettuces and greens form an important part of daily meals. Originally a melange of gathered wild greens and thinnings from the lettuce bed, mesclun has been Americanized to include lettuces, arugula, endives, mustards, parsleys, fennels, escarole, as well as tender wild greens. Mesclun is often used as a fresh salad, topped with edible flowers like calendula or borage. Others prefer to serve it as a wilted salad or stir-fried and served as a side dish. Whatever your preference, give nutritious mesclun a try in your garden or containers this year.

This article originally appeared in the February 28, 1997 issue, p. 14.

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