by Angelina Williamson
Many years ago I got a free packet of mache with a seed order and meant to try it out, so I kept the packet forever in less-than-ideal conditions, and never planted it. Then, late last fall, I mixed the old seeds in with lettuce I was planting. I figured it was better to throw them in the soil instead of the garbage, but I honestly didn’t think any of them would germinate. Most of them did, however, and I had a lush bed of winter lettuce and mache. Looking back, I can’t believe I waited so long to discover how wonderful mache is! I hope if you’ve never tried it you’ll give it a chance too.
Mache grows in loose, low rosettes and is also known as: lamb’s lettuce, corn salad, field salad, nut salad, and Rapunzel. It’s a cool-weather crop and in zone 9b doesn’t need winter protection. We’ve just had a long stretch of nights with temps below 36℉ and my mache is undamaged, unlike many other plants in my garden that were damaged by the frost. I will give the suggested planting instructions below, but first I will tell you that you can completely ignore them as I did and be reasonably sure of a good outcome. Sprinkle the seed over whatever area you want them to grow and scratch them into the soil. You can sprinkle them mixed with lettuce seed as I did and have a bed of beautiful mixed greens.
The more seed you broadcast in one space, the more thinning you’ll need to do which is perfect for a bed that gives you food continuously for a couple of months. I let a couple of my plants go to seed when the bed was nearly done so this year I didn’t have to plant any mache at all, I’ve got tons of it from volunteers. I’m going to share a picture of the bed they popped back up in, but don’t be scared: it’s not a tidy bed. I want you to see that you can cram mache in almost anywhere. The roots are delicate and small so they don’t interfere too much with the growth of other plants.
This bed is just 4’ x 3’. I have already harvested a big colander full of mache and there’s a ton more to harvest. This bed has also got kale, chard, and beets growing with the mache volunteers. (There are also some California poppies, false dandelions, unidentified other weeds, and two surprise shallots). This size bed will yield several good harvests of mache and as I harvest it, the other winter greens will get bigger as they get more room. I also grew radishes in this same bed but already harvested them. The main thing I want to illustrate here is that mache is small, but you can get a lot of it out of a small space.
If you want to plant it in your own garden, follow these growing directions:
- Plant mache any time between October and March in zone 9b
- It takes 10-20 days to emerge
- Plant seeds ¼” to ½” deep
- Space the seeds ½” apart
- Space rows 12” apart
- Begin thinning when there are 3-4 leaves
- Thin to 4” apart
- 60 days to maturity
Mache is tender, even when mature, and has a delicate nutty flavor. It’s wonderful on sandwiches and in salads. When you first start thinning your plants, they will be very small so you’ll probably start by adding them to other greens in a salad, but once they get bigger you’ll want to make a salad where mache is the star because it truly stands out on its own merits. Behold one of the three salads I got from that one colander harvest:
This salad is comprised of: mache, mandarins (also from my garden!), thinly sliced red onion, toasted walnuts, and kalamata olives dressed with a mustard vinaigrette. A simple refreshing zone 9b winter salad. Mache has three times the vitamin C that lettuce has and is packed with other nutrients including iron and potassium.
If you haven’t grown mache and are inspired to do so, here are two great sources for seeds that I know of:
Botanical Interests (this is where I got the seed for the mache in the pics above)
Photos via the author and Wikimedia commons