Growing Green Mâche from Seed
Sow it, thin it, then stand back to watch this sweet-tasting, fast-growing crop take off
When I was a child, my family celebrated the first days of spring with a garden salad of nutty, dark green rosettes that we called feldsalat. Back then, my mother had the seeds mailed from Germany. These days, I share my love for those thick emerald leaves with my husband, who calls them la mâche. He grew up in France, where this humble weed with its elevated gourmet status graces bistro menus and markets alike.
In North America, this easy-to-grow green is sometimes called “corn salad” or “lamb’s lettuce.” Whatever the common name, mâche has a delicate flavor, which resembles that of nutty, concentrated butterhead lettuce. The leaves provide a nutritious boost of vitamins and minerals, especially iron. Producing attractive and tasty fare at a time when little else is available, mâche is a hardy survivor, requiring little care and remaining free of pests and diseases.
- Amend beds with compost and manure.
- Plant in early fall in warm zones and early spring in cooler zones.
- Direct-sow three or four seeds per inch, ¼ inch deep.
- Mulch with straw, and keep the bed moist.
- Harvest rosettes when they are 3 to 6 inches wide.
Sow mâche seeds when the weather is cool
About 60 varieties of mâche have been developed from the original wild plant, with differences in leaf size, shape, and flavor. Of these, only a few are available in North America, and they fall into two categories: large-seeded and small-seeded.
The large-seeded varieties produce 4- to 8-inch-wide rosettes, with a light green color and narrow, elongated, spoon-shaped leaves. Highly productive, large-seeded varieties are the easiest to harvest. The small-seeded varieties produce plants 2 to 5 inches in diameter, with rounder and darker leaves. Although more finicky to pick and clean, small-seeded choices are more flavorful. In general, large-seeded types resist heat better; small-seeded types prefer cool, moist conditions and do best when grown in winter and early spring.
Like many weeds, mâche grows vigorously in almost any soil, although it will produce more foliage with the addition of nitrogen-rich compost or manure. Here in the Pacific Northwest, I generally sow the seeds shortly after the Labor Day weekend. Some seed catalogs recommend planting in spring and then spacing the sowings throughout the summer for a continual harvest. I find, however, that the seeds germinate poorly and bolt quickly in hot weather. Ideally, seeds should be planted when temperatures are beginning to drop in fall. The plants overwinter well and can be harvested in early spring.
Mâche is remarkably hardy. The only gardeners who must forgo overwintering this treat are those living in zones where the mercury dips below 5°F. Using a cold frame or mulching with straw, however, can provide significant protection in cold climates. If you are a cold-climate gardener and don’t want to take a chance, you can enjoy a late-spring harvest from seed planted as soon as the soil can be worked in late winter.
Mâche is one of the vegetables that you generally won’t find in a run-of-the-mill grocery store. Perhaps that is what makes it an extra special treat in early spring. The leaves are juicy and crisp, and some describe the flavor as a cross between cress and walnuts. To highlight this unique taste, don’t overdress or cook the mâche leaves. The less you do, the better the meal.
To plant in rows, sow three or four seeds per inch, ¼ inch deep, with the rows about 10 inches apart. Keep the soil moist. I plant in blocks, often covering several empty beds because mâche makes an excellent soil conditioner if you turn under what’s left after your harvest. I broadcast the seeds on the soil surface, tamp the soil with a rake or press the bed flat with a board (a level bed facilitates harvesting), and mulch with a sparse layer of straw. Thinning is not necessary but can mean the difference between a 3-inch-wide and a 6-inch-wide rosette.
How to harvest mâche
Robust growth in good late-fall conditions provides me with the first bowlful of mâche thinnings by Halloween. In my garden in British Columbia, plants reach their peak size and flavor in late winter or early spring. To harvest, I grasp the plant and cut near the base for whole rosettes or an inch or two higher for cut-and-come-again leaves. Mâche stores well for up to two weeks in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. Wash it just before serving.
Leaves can be plucked well into spring when the plants bolt to seed; they remain tender with no hint of bitterness or spice. When the plants are mature, I shake the flower stalks into a paper bag and have no trouble gathering an ample supply of next year’s seed. A light hoeing then turns the remaining stalks and stems into nutrients for the soil.
Purists (and I’m one of them) will argue that mâche tastes the best right in the garden or dressed with little more than a light drizzle of olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. Traditionally, though, the French prefer la mâche with cooked beets and walnuts. Whatever your preference, once you’ve tried it, this easy-to-grow gourmet green will become a welcome regular in your garden.
Ingrid Bauer consumes deliciously simple mâche salads on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia.
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