MESCLUN SIMPLY translates as “mixture,” meaning its interpretation can be pretty loose. But for organic farmers like Kate Spring and Edge Fuentes of Good Heart Farmstead in Vermont, it’s something really solid: a strong foundation to rely on, a main crop that’s become the underpinning of an entire livelihood.
Good Heart Farmstead began in 2013, located 9 miles north of Montpelier in Zone 4, with a goal of becoming a “full-diet CSA,” but quickly evolved otherwise.
“We raised sheep, turkeys, pigs, laying hens and broilers, and grew a long list of vegetable crops,” Kate recalls of Year 1. “AND we had a baby. It was crazy.”
Add to that the fact that in Year 1 Edge and Kate were cutting their mesclun by hand, meaning it took so long to harvest that they couldn’t be competitive in pricing on a wholesale level.
Goodbye soon thereafter to the pigs and turkeys; hello to an expanded vegetable field—and, “an amazing quick-cut greens harvester, developed and sold by Farmers Friend, which transformed everything,” she says. “We can cut up to 100 pounds an hour with it.”
Each year since, the Good Heart Farmstead team has increased the amount of mesclun they grow—harvesting 100 to 200 pounds a week in summer (along with about 35 other crops). In fact, it’s their main wholesale product.
I figured they must know a thing or two about mesclun, therefore, like what makes for a good blend of ingredients (right down to the dressing), and whether to grow the elements together or separately. Kate and I had this Q&A the other day that I want t share with you, too:
mesclun 101 (plus dressing!), a q&a with kate spring
Q. I have to ask: Does your son, who by my calculation will be 4 in July 2017, have any interest in salad?
A. Waylon loves salad! He’ll walk along the beds picking leaves and eating them as he goes. This might be why he prefers raw food so much of the time—when it comes to harvesting he’s discovered he has agency and doesn’t need to ask us for food. This can sometimes be problematic around the snap peas and carrots, or in beds that we’re trying to keep uniform for a later harvest. We have a bit of a backwards kind of thing going on here, that we have to tell our son to slow down on the vegetables.
Q. How many months of the year do you produce mesclun? Do you grow it both in a greenhouse and in the open ground, and when and where?
A. Each year we extend our season. In 2016, we produced mesclun May through November. This year, we overwintered spinach and lettuce in our greenhouse and began harvesting small amounts for wholesale in February, though the harvest really picked up in mid-March. We’ve already planned our fall seedings in order to keep the harvest going through the winter and into next spring.
We grow mesclun everywhere: greenhouse, unheated hoop houses, and outside, depending on the season. In spring, we have it growing in all three places: the overwintered greens coming to an end in the greenhouse, early starts heading up in the hoop houses, and seedlings transplanted outside for what will be the first summer harvest. By June, all of our greens are planted outside. We start planting them in hoop houses and the greenhouse again in October.
Q. I presume you began, as most gardeners do, by ordering mesclun seed already mixed from the catalogs. Lately you’ve shifted toward blending your own, despite the diversity of pre-blended seed mixes available. How and why did that happen?
A. Yes, we started out with pre-blended lettuce mixes and used those for about the first three years. They’re great in taking out the guess-work, but even with the most carefully selected mix, we’d run into times when certain varieties in the mix would either take longer to mature or bolt sooner, and when one variety bolted we’d have to scrap the whole bed even if all the others were still beautiful, since it’d take too long to pick through it.
Last year we experimented with Salanova, a series of “one-cut” lettuce varieties from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, that grow like a head, but when you cut it, all the leaves are baby-sized. We were hooked after the first planting—it’s super easy to harvest either as cut and come again or for baby heads, it has great loft, great flavor, and it’s beautiful. It also has great yield, and that was probably the biggest factor for us. We can get 1 pound per square foot of Salanova compared to ½ a pound of the mix we used before. High Mowing also just came out with some one-cuts that we’re trying out this year.
Even when we grew lettuce mixes, we always sowed mustard and Asian greens separately from the lettuce, because they grow at different speeds. By growing each variety separately, we’re able to stagger the seeding so they’re all ready for harvest at the same time.
Q. Let’s talk some recipes—or maybe first, at least about general guidelines for creating a recipe. What to your mind (eye, mouth) are the elements of success in a mesclun? In the intro I mentioned the loosest definition.
A. I also have a loose definition—any baby-leaf salad mix is “mesclun.” I’ve seen farms that offer all sorts of mixes, from spring mix to lettuce mix to mesclun and more, but we keep it simple and just call it all mesclun, and talk with…