Corn salad is hardy and easy to grow

2011-11-10T00:00:00Z Corn salad is hardy and easy to growThe Associated Press The Associated Press
November 10, 2011 12:00 am  • 

After some anxiety, I'm now confident that I've firmly established a weed called "corn salad" in my garden.

Not that it should have been difficult: The plant is, after all, a weed, one that got its name for the way it invades European corn fields -- where "corn" means any grain except our corn, which is called maize there.

The second part of this weed's name, "salad," explains why I want it in my garden. Corn salad, also called mâche, lamb's lettuce or fetticus, is a tasty salad green that forms rosettes of small, dark green, spoon-shaped leaves. These leaves are not crisp, like lettuce, but so tender as to almost melt in your mouth. Their delicate flavor is flowery, something like rose petals.

Despite its apparent delicacy, corn salad is a tough plant. It self-seeds readily and tolerates enough cold to grow happily through cool autumn weather, then survives winter even in northern regions.

Nonetheless, in the past I frequently had trouble growing corn salad. Despite careful sowing of fresh seeds, germination would be slow and spotty.

Then I decided a few years ago to try growing corn salad by capitalizing on its weedy nature. I became deliberately less careful about pulling up all corn salad plants going to seed. The result? More corn salad seedlings.

Corn salad seedlings coming up first in shaded areas -- whether from seed sown by me or self-sown -- eventually clued me in on the reason for the poor results of my deliberate sowings: The seeds only germinate at cool temperatures.

So now, if I want to deliberately plant corn salad somewhere, I wait until late summer or early fall to plant. Or I sow in a seed flat that I keep on the cool, north side of my house until sprouts appear, then transplant the seedlings out to the garden. Or I cover sown seed with a board to keep the soil below cool and moist. Or -- easiest of all -- I just dig up and move clumps of self-sown seedlings to wherever I want the plant to establish itself. Corn salad transplants easily.

Of course, self-sown seedlings do not come up in neat, gardenesque rows; they show up in amorphous patches here and there near where plants previously stood. Plants also come up thickly, as well as in places where they are not wanted. Paths, for example.

Fortunately, corn salad is easy to weed out where it is not wanted. And as for coming up too thickly, plants can be thinned out to let those that remain grow larger. Or a scissors can be used to "mow" crowded clumps of plants for harvest.

Autumn and winter are the best times for growing corn salad. Just a bit of extra protection -- a covering of clear plastic or the warm, south wall of a house, for example -- keeps corn salad not only alive, but even growing in cold winter weather.

Come spring, warming temperatures and lengthening days prompt corn salad to go to seed. Not that it tastes bad even then.

As temperatures warm further in spring, the season for corn salad passes. The tangle of seedstalks makes it easier to pull out spent plants. Those few, well-placed plants that are deliberately left to grow make seeds that conveniently drop to the ground, to wait out hot summer weather before sprouting for a leafy harvest the next autumn and winter.

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