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Growing Winter Greens – Starved for Lettuce and Other Greens?

With hoop tunnels and Virginia’s short-lived winters, I usually can manage a salad 2 or 3 times a week even during January, February and March. Boy, was this year different! The cold started in December and continued to date except for a few respites here and there.

It didn’t take long for the my cutting celery, Russian Kale, and Chard to succumb to the severe temperatures. Even the pak choi finally gave up.

Under my hoop tunnels the lettuce was rotted at the base by January.  A few pieces made it through and even though they don’t look good right now, I know from past years that they’ll be the pieces to produce lettuce first in early spring.

Pak Choi finally surrendered as well.

A patch of spinach in one of the hoop tunnels has managed to produce at least enough for a salad or two every month.

Another patch of baby swiss chard survived although it looked poorly for a while. It renewed itself this past week and looks great!

Baby Swiss Chard

Baby Swiss Chard – March 30th

My fall planted onions made it through and will give me early spring onions.

I'll have a few early spring onions.

I’ll have a few early spring onions. March 30th

Mache Saves the Day (and 3 months +)

Although I’ve not had enough “green” stuff to satisfy my craving for salads, thanks to cold-hardy mache (also known as lamb’s lettuce, corn salad, and field lettuce) I’ve had enough to get by during these cold months of a more severe winter than what we’ve been use to.

Mache is a gourmet green usually referred to as having a nutty flavor and it may taste that way to some folks. But it’s very tender and buttery to my tastebuds.

A patch about 2 feet x 2 feet at the end of a bed and extending into the path.

A patch about 2 feet x 2 feet at the end of a bed and extending into the path. March 30th.

Their are many varieties of mache, and even the so called large-leaf varieties are not all that much larger. Nonetheless, any increase in size makes for easier harvesting and more salads.

The plants form a rosette that grow low to ground.  Some varieties are only about an inch or two high.  Other varieties form a dense clump about 2 to 3 inches high.

Large leaf variety is still not very large.

Large leaf variety is still not very large. March 30th

 

Smaller leaf variety.  More dense and bit taller.

Smaller leaf variety. More dense and bit taller. March 30th

If you get lots of it growing in your garden you can cut the entire plant off at the base and use it. I don’t ever have enough that I can bear the thoughts of using the entire plant. So I go to the tedious task of picking those tiny leaves either one at a time or by pinching several at a time. That way, it seems to renew itself more quickly.

How to Get it Started in Your Garden

Several years ago, when I first tried to grow Mache, I sowed the seed in early spring.  Not much grew.  By October, the seed was coming up in places that I’d not even planted it.  When I saw that, I knew right away this plant wanted to grow in the fall.

You can broadcast seed in late August or September and it’ll come up when conditions are to its liking. It’ll thrive in the cool weather and absolutely laugh at the cold.  When things start warming in April it’ll go to seed.

If you get too busy to notice and fail to collect the seed to sow in more convenient places, it’ll sow the seed where it drops.  And once again will return to your garden when conditions are right in late summer or early fall.

Mache that came up in the most unexpected places in the garden.

Mache that came up in the most unexpected places in the garden. March 30th

Extra Bonus

One of the best parts of saving the seed is that within about 3 years you’ll have plants that are specifically tailored to the conditions in your garden.

Mache as a Cover Crop? Now that’s a novel thought!

My goal is to pay attention this year; collect the seed; and sow several beds of it for winter use.  When seedlings emerge  in late summer or fall, I could transplant where necessary to get more even distribution and use it as a cover crop.  (I’d still add some mulch, just for good measure.)

I’ll be in salad lover’s heaven if that visualization becomes reality.

Nutritious

Mache is one of the most nutritious lettuces you can grow. An excellent source of Vitamin A and C.  A good source of B6, potassium, manganese, copper and iron.  All or one of those must be what my body wants when I crave greens.  A salad of mache stops the craving anyway.

One of the Most Reliable Cold-Weather Greens

If you want to have greens for salads all winter, mache will be one of the most reliable sources.  I’m zone 7 and it survived in my garden without protection.  (Temperatures fell to zero degrees at least once this winter and at night we had low double digits most of the winter.)

If you’re in a colder zone, plan to throw on some agricultural fabric when it turns too severe.  Or perhaps set up hoop tunnels over the beds with mache growing in them.

Final Thoughts

Think about adding Mache to your garden this year.  If you already have the seed, wait until late summer to sow it.

If you don’t have any seed, order now before you forget or while supplies are plentiful.

If you love lettuces and tender greens like I do, Mache is something you’ll want every year in your garden.

______

See comment below.  Jack (reader from New Jersey) found this growing in his garden.

Jack's photo 2

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13 comments to Growing Winter Greens – Starved for Lettuce and Other Greens?

  • Sandra

    YUM, Theresa I love this stuff too. It has that great delicate buttery flavor as you said. I never have enough for salads, just a nibble here and there. It is a plant that seems to do just what it wants, and never what I expect. I had it growing in my paths – looking green when nothing else survived, and I transplanted it without any problem to a bed. I would love to have this as a cover plant – that is a great idea. I’ll be trying this come Sept. A whole salad of Mache would be such a treat.

  • Virginia Gardner

    Good morning, Theresa…

    Thanks for that. Funny that you should mention mache… it was one of the only interesting selections of greens in the market the other day. I tried salad greens once in window boxes and it and I failed miserably. I am trying again in one of those 4′ diameter x 12″ bags, on my deck. If I manage it and get accustomed to clipping salad greens daily, I have a spot that could become their home in the garden. My question… do you need to rotate these sorts of crops as well?

    Thanks,

    Virignia

  • RAY KENT

    I LIVE IN SOUTHERN ONTARIO. LAST YEAR I GREW ROMAINE LETTUCE FOR THE FIRST TIME AND WE REALLY ENJOYED IT. IN THE FALL SOME WERE STILL GROWING SO I PUT A TUNNEL COVER OVER THEM. TO MY AMAZEMENT THEY WERE STILL GROWING IN NOV. IN DEC. I LEFT THE LAST COUPLE JUST TO SEE WHAT HAPPENED. WHILE I DIDN’T CROP THEM I TRIED A LEAF NOW AND THEN AND FOUND THEM STILL CRISP AND FLAVOURFUL. WE WERE AWAY FOR CHRISTMAS AND LOST THEM OVER THAT TIME. WE HAD A NUMBER OF DAYS JUST ABOVE “0” F AND LOTS OF FROST DURING THAT TIME. JUST AMAZING! I KNOW IT’S MUCH COLDER THAN USUAL EVERYWHERE BUT I STARTED SOME LETTUCE INDOORS YESTERDAY DESPITE THE 1′ OF SNOW + ALMOST 1″ OF ICE + ANOTHER FOOT OF SNOW ON TOP OF THE ICE I SEE LOOKING OUT AT MY GARDEN. BUT WHO KNOWS?

  • Using mache as a cover crop sounds so interesting! How much seed do you think it would take to cover a bed 3ft x 10ft or so to make a cover crop of it? Also, I would assume it has a shallow roots so would it be true that other crops could be easily transplanted into it while it’s working as a mulch? Lastly, about what time of year does it go to seed?

  • Theresa

    Sandra, thanks for the confirmation about the buttery flavor! Bill has the gourmet taste buds, and he says there is a slight hint of nuttiness. I, like you, think it is definitely buttery!

    So glad you too are going to try to cover a bet with it. Wouldn’t it be grand to feed everyday, all winter long on mache!

    Hi Virginia,
    I’ll be interested in knowing how you do with the 4′ x 12″ bags. Are they all plastic; or are they the breathable kind?

    Regarding rotation: Nature’s principle behind rotation is diversity. It makes it easier to accomplish rotation when you understand why you are doing it.

    I think we all have to make a conscious effort to apply diversity to anything we do in the garden; otherwise, it seems to slip by us.

    Think diversity within a family of crops (different varieties of lettuce, tomatoes, cover crops, etc.). Think diversity when planting — the more crops you have growing in a spot the more soil life will like it. The more they like it, the more they’ll help you out with your plants and overall garden.

    If you have the entire bed filled with a crop like beans (which takes up the entire bed) just plant a good cover crop after them to give you some diversity. Or – if you have time plant lettuce and radishes after the beans.

    Hope that helps Virginia. I plan another post on diversity as soon as I can get to it.

    Ray, starting lettuce in spite of the snow and ice still on the ground is a SMART move. We can’t always go by the way things “look”, but rather what we know is coming sooner or later. You’ll be prepared AND you’ll have lettuce.
    I’ve found that it will hold well in a flat is the need arises.
    Congrats on growing romaine. There are so many delicious varieties of romaine and most all of them have great taste!

    Farming Bear, I don’t know how much seed a 3 x 10 foot bed would take. (My mouth is watering as I picture that bed filled with mache.)
    I’m going to do a search for seed by the pound or at least by the 1/4 pound.
    Bottom line on that is I think you’ll need at least that kind of quantity to cover the space. I’ll know first hand once I do it myself, but by then, you will too. 🙂

    Thanks friends for the great comments which really added to the post!
    Theresa

  • Virginia Gardner

    Hi Theresa, thank… I do understand crop rotation actually, and I move our various crops around each year. i just know that simpler is better for me, and if I am going to attempt greens in the garden year ’round, it would be simpler if they didn’t need to move around like the tomatoes and cucumbers and such. The bag that I am using is breathable fabric, and I’ve watched the folks at Fifth Season (where I purchased it) for just about every crop. It may be that deck planting will be the way to go for my greens… I have 1100 sf of deck, which is a little excessive, but maybe not so much if I make it productive as well as pretty 🙂 . P.S. I am enjoying your book very much.

  • Toni Brock

    Hi Theresa,
    The mache I can find is Valerianella locusta and the picture shows a rounded almost crinkle leaf. I wonder what kind yours is. Do you remember where you got your seed? I would love to grow some. It would be wonderful to have access to fresh greens. Thank you for the inspiration.

    Toni

  • Theresa

    Virginia, the bag sounds like a winner! Can hardly wait to learn of your great success with it!

    As you know, many market growers who grow various greens for market, take up one crop and replace it with another in the same family or sometimes identical. They add lots of compost to refresh things before planting the next crop.

    Still, in the garden, I personally favor as much diversity as possible for the ultimate in soil health. If you decide to eventually plant greens in one place the garden, you could go for different varieties of greens and just make sure lots of new organic material (or organic matter) is added to the soil.

    I know you will be successful whatever you decide Virginia. Please keep me updated.
    Glad you’re enjoying the book. Thanks for letting me know.

    Toni, I think that Valerianella locusta is the Latin name for mache and I think it covers all varieties.
    It’s been so long since I planted the original seed, but it seems to me the packet said “mache” and some said “large leaf mache.”

    My mache with smallest leaf has more crinkled look to it.
    I had gotten it from various sources. Pinetree and Fedco I think.
    Theresa

    PS. For planted this year I order a packet from Pintree that is labeled Macholong Mache. The information next to it says: This North Holland type is from a prominent Dutch grower so it is definitely the real deal. Compared to the mache in the French section (W141) this one is much larger and more vigorous, also a bit later, ideal for munching with sort of an unusual, memorable flavor.
    This is probably one of the varieties I already have.

    I just looked up seed in quantity. First thing I came to was Johnny’s. They identify it by the Latin name and call it VIT. The picture looks identical to one of the varieties I have. http://www.johnnyseeds.com/p-6040-vit.aspx

  • Theresa

    Thought this would be helpful and of interest to all. Just got an email from Jack in New Jersey. He sent me a picture of what looks exactly like my mache — except it appears to be a bit further along — like it’s going to stalk. Other than that, it looks just like mine.

    He didn’t plant it, but has 15 to 20 clumps in the garden. He thinks the seed may have been mixed with turnips that he planted. That definitely could be, because they probably go to seed at the same time, so they could have been in the field with the turnips being grown for seed.

    Bottom line – be on the look out. You may have them too.
    I’ve post Jack’s picture above, at the end of the post so you can see.

    Theresa

  • Toni Brock

    Theresa, if you get a chance in your busy life, would you look on Territorial Seeds website and in the search box type “vit” so I can be assured that is the same thing you all are growing.

    Thank you,
    Toni

  • Theresa

    That’s it Toni – at least one variety. http://www.territorialseed.com/category/s?keyword=vit
    Theresa

  • millard

    You’ve written two articles in which you mentioned mache or corn salad. In many parts of Europe it is the chief winter ingredient for making a salad, and France is a major exporter to all of northern Europe. Many gardeners also use it as a cover crop because it can be sown fairly late in the Fall. I always let several plants go to seed in various sections of my garden. Interestingly, it is mentioned in one of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. The Swiss call it Nüssli (nut) and other regions (mouse ears). In France you can purchase some 20 varieties, including two organic kinds of seed. The Dutch have developed a broad leaf variety to be harvested in the late fall up to Christmas. “Mache” is the French name, by the way.

  • Theresa

    Thanks Millard.
    I knew that it was native to Europe and in places grows wild there. I was very pleased to learn from your posting that it is used as a cover crop.
    Thanks for taking time to put this up.
    Do you by chance happen to know which of the Grimm’s fairy tales it was mentioned in and by what name? Just curious.
    Thanks Millard.
    Theresa

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