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Growing Your Own Greens : Mesclun: Tasty French salad mix is easy and inexpensive to grow in Southland gardens.


The delicious but pricey mix of French salad greens called mesclun (or "field salad" in some restaurants) may be the easiest thing you can grow in your garden.

From seed to salad bowl takes about six weeks and the seeds are unusually easy to sprout. Mesclun can be grown almost year round, even in containers, if you haven't a garden or the room.

Mesclun more or less means mix in the dialect of Nice, and, though gardeners and gourmets aren't always sure what's in it, all of the ingredients are grown and harvested together.

Arugula and lettuce are mainstays in traditional mesclun, but almost anything goes, as long as it can be called a green.

One seed company offers six different mescluns, some they invented themselves, some based on traditional French blends. Put any in a salad bowl and drizzle a little olive oil and vinegar with a couple teaspoons of Dijon mustard mixed in and you have a zesty and often beautiful salad.

The zest comes from the greens other than lettuce, such as endive, chicory, dandelion, cress, mustard, mache, chervil, purslane and of course, arugula; beauty from the various red and green lettuces, some with traditional roundish leaves, some with pointed or deeply lobed leaves.

Although the contents may very, one thing never does: You must harvest mesclun when the plants are small and tender. Wait too long and a touch, or, in the case of arugula, a truckload of bitterness awaits you.

Plants are typically harvested when they are less than six inches tall. Three inches tall is considered ideal and they get there in about six weeks.

Use a scissors and cut the leaves about an inch above the ground. Tear in half, soak in the sink to wash off any dirt, dry with a towel or a lettuce spinner, dress and the bite-sized pieces are ready to eat.

Don't plant too much at a time or you'll find the plants going over the hill before you can use them. They grow very fast and even waiting a week will make leaves larger than you really want for true mesclun.

Successive plantings are the answer. Although a seed packet may contain several thousand seeds, plant only a pinch or two at a time.

Rows don't really suit mesclun. Planted in wide beds, the ingredients are as pretty in the garden as they are in the salad bowl, maybe more so, when the sun is low and the various shades of green and red seem to glow in the garden.

The small but wide bed pictured on K1 contains two different mixes in a 3-by-4-foot space at the Ocean View Farms community garden in Mar Vista. In half of the bed is a mix from the Nicoise region of France that contains no lettuce but lots of other greens (endive, chicory, dandelion, cress and arugula). In the other half is a Provencal mesclun containing lots of lettuce as well as other greens (chervil, arugula and endive).

If you're already growing lettuce, the Nicoise mesclun can be added to salads to spice them up a bit, or, for a really tart, teeth-clattering salad, eat them alone, as done in Nice.

The Provencal mesclun is a stand-alone salad--you don't need to add anything but dressing. Most of these European mixes are described as "piquant" or "tart and tangy."

Seedsman Sheperd Ogden of the Cook's Garden thinks that many of these mixes are too bitter for most Americans so they developed their own milder mixes.

The Cook's Garden, P.O. Box 535, Londonderry, Vt. 05148 has the largest selection, but Sheperd's Garden Seeds, 30 Irene St., Torrington, Conn. 06790 and the Gourmet Gardener, 4000 West 126th St., Leawood, Kan. 66209, also sell mesclun mixes.

If you garden in a clay soil, make a mesclun bed by mixing organic matter into the soil with a spading fork or tiller, so it is well aerated and almost fluffy. If your soil is silty or sandy, you can add a little organic matter, though it isn't really necessary, but do add fertilizer and spade it into the soil.

You may not be able to tell the weeds from the mesclun, since some of the ingredients are close cousins of garden weeds. If you expect weeds, water the beds every day to bring up the seed, then hoe or pull the weeds before sowing the mesclun.

Plant mesclun in a foot or two of bed at a time. Sowing seed every two weeks should keep you in greens for a long time.

Thoroughly soak the soil a few days in advance of sowing. After it dries a little on top, lightly pull a garden rake over the bed, making very shallow furrows with the tines. Sow the seed sparingly--seeds should be about 1-2 inches apart--and then lightly tamp the soil with the end of the rake. Water with a fine spray and keep the soil moist until seed sprouts.

Because the mesclun grows so quickly, pests won't be a problem, except for slugs and snails. Watch out for these on the lettuce.

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