URBANA, Ill. - Mesclun is a mixture of assorted small, baby salad leaves also known as a mesclun mix. You can purchase mesclun bagged in cellophane at your grocer. Yet freshly harvested from a few square feet in your patio, garden, or front stoop, mesclun is an easy tender treat, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.
“What flavors are in the mix? Arugula, mustard greens, and chicories have a strong peppery flavor,” said Nancy Pollard. “Endive presents a peppery bitter note. Radicchio has a combination sweet-and-bitter taste. Some describe spinach as mineral in taste, but sweet when young. Sorrel has a tart, tangy acid taste like a lemon or sour green apple.
“Any one of these alone can be overpowering. Yet mixed with an equal quantity of mild lettuces and a simple dressing, they present a pleasing layering of flavors to savor,” she said.
While they do best in full sun, these greens will grow nearly as well in light shade. Plant the salad seed mix in March to early May when soils reach about 40 degrees F. These cool-season greens are sweetest when grown in cool weather. Plant again in August or September as cool late summer and fall nights favor them as well.
“You could grow these in a half barrel or other container while waiting to plant warm-season flowers or veggies,” she said. “And they only take a few weeks and a few square foot of soil.
“Lettuces often sprout in about a week. Other greens will take about two weeks to germinate so you can sow them separately if you wish and then mix them at harvest. You could also purchase a mesclun seed packet that is premixed. Sow only as much as you and your family will eat in a week, and then if you have space, repeat every week two or three times to have new baby salad coming on over the whole season.”
All of these greens have small seeds that are best sown on the surface of loosened soil. If growing the seeds in a pot, Pollard recommends moistening the soil first so the seeds aren’t washed away when trying to moisten the soil.
Next sprinkle the seed about a half-inch apart, and then cover with only about one-quarter inch of soil. Some suggest you practice sowing fine seed on a paper towel first until you get the feel of distributing the seed evenly about one-half inch apart. Then mist to thoroughly moisten the top dressing of soil. Keep seeds moist but not soaking during the germination time. Birds sometimes like to harvest the seed before they sprout so consider covering them with netting if you think feathered visitors might be tempted.
“Start harvesting your crop when the greens reach just 2 or 3 inches tall, often in only a month or so,” Pollard said. “Don’t let them get more than 5 or 6 inches tall before snipping them off with scissors for your salad. If you cut them about an inch above soil level, most often the crowns will re-sprout.
“Water and a light fertilizer after harvest will bring on additional delicate greens from the remaining crowns. If you used slow-release fertilizer in the potting soil, you will not need to add more fertilizer unless it is a fall planting and you have used the soil all summer for other crops. With a little planning, you will have this fresh salad available at your doorstep,” she said.