mesclun 101, with kate spring of good heart farmstead

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 one 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 salad dressing), and whether to grow the elements together or separately. Kate (who blogs about organic living at The Good Heart Life website) and I had this Q&A the other day that I want to 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. [Above, the Red Butter variety of Salanova.]

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 our wholesale customers and CSA members about how our mix changes through the season. To me, seasonality is more important that a strict adherence to definition.

No matter what’s in the mix, some important factors are loft, texture, a variety of color with different shades of greens and reds, and flavors that range from sweet to bitter to a bit of heat.  And out of those variables, loft is super important. That’s what we love so much about Salanova—it adds height and keeps leaves from sticking to each other, because no one likes a matted down salad.

Q. Is part of the “trick” to success in creating a mix identifying elements that grow at a similar rate, or are there any other technical details I’m supposed to look for on the packets or in catalog listings when choosing my raw materials? 

A. If you’re growing each variety separately, growth rate isn’t as critical. You do need to pay attention to the days to maturity when you’re planning out your seeding dates, though, since mustard greens generally grow faster than lettuce. Salanova lettuce, for instance, is ready for harvest in about 55 days, where as Mizuna is ready in 40. So we stagger the seeding dates of those crops in order to harvest them at the same time.

Other things to look for are bolt-resistance, especially important if you’re planning on cut-and-come-again harvesting, and flavor notes. Most descriptions will tell you if a mustard green is hot or mild.  They’ll also usually give you texture descriptions, like smooth, thick, tender, frilly, and so on, so you can plan a mix with a variety of textures.

Q. Are you willing to share any of your recipes for those of us inclined to do some tinkering ourselves? How about any varieties that you think make great building blocks for DIY mesclun adventurers just getting started?

A. Yes. The base of our mix, as you might guess, is Salanova. There are eight different varieties, and our five favorite are red and green incised, red and green sweet, and red butter. At times we use all five, but at the very least there’s always red and green incised for loft and texture.

In spring we add baby spinach, ‘Astro’ arugula, and purple or green mizuna. If you like a spicier mix, add ‘Ruby Streaks’ (my all-time favorite mustard green!).  Another good heat-packing green is ‘Wrinkled Crinkled Crumpled’ cress, which I like to grow just for the name, haha. During high summer, these mustard greens get even hotter, so we take a break from them for our standard mix. If you like spice, though, by all means keep them growing.

Baby ‘Red Russian’ kale is amazing in the fall, which is the season we’ve found it grows best for us. Baby chard also adds tenderness and color (orange and pink are stunning in the mix).

Q. Do you ever really mix it up, adding edible flowers or herbs to your farm’s offerings for your CSA or wholesale restaurant clients? Any of those “extra somethings” you want to recommend? For instance: I love fresh dill leaves in my summer salads, but I grow it separately, not in among the greens; my ex-boss couldn’t imagine a salad without chervil, as another example. You?

A. We keep it pretty standard and consistent for our restaurant clients, but I was inspired by a salad one of our clients made with chopped mint. It was a revelation. Mint is my favorite herb (though I can’t choose between pepper or spearmint, I love them both), and a summer salad tossed with fresh mint, snap peas and goat cheese is a delight. And as you know, mint is also grown away from the annual garden (far away!), so the beds don’t become overrun with it. [Also: Kate’s favorite edible flowers.]

Q. Whatever salad greens we grow, I suspect you have some advice for all of us on how to grow it well, after cultivating that much salad these last years. Your top salad-growing tips?

A. The Number 1 thing for direct-seeded greens is a clean bed. You don’t want baby greens having to compete with weeds.  We cultivate, broadfork, and rake out compost on every bed that is direct-seeded.  We make sure it’s level and smooth, too, because consistency in the bed makes harvesting easier. After a clean bed, consistent watering is really important to ensure even germination. [How to grow lettuce, from Kate’s website.]

Q. Do you practice cut-and-come-again harvesting of your mesclun, or just get one cutting then move on to the next sowing that’s coming to readiness?

A. We do both, depending on the crop and the season. Baby-leaf lettuce, mustards, and Asian greens all have pretty fast re-growth, and we can get a second harvest off of them a week after the first. The Salanova takes longer to regrow, about 10 days. We started off doing cut-and-come-again with them, but are moving to just one cut, paired with more frequent planting.

In the heat of midsummer, when lettuces have a greater tendency to get bitter and mustards hotter, we’ll do one cut and then move on to the next succession.  Then in the fall, when re-growth slows, we’ll again have successions closer together so we can keep the harvest going without any lag time.

Q. Speaking of next harvests: What’s your succession plan, timing-wise, with salad mixes? How often do you re-sow?

A. We re-sow every two weeks to keep up with the production numbers we aim for.  But like I said earlier, each crop seeding is staggered depending on their days to maturity, so we’ll re-sow lettuce all on the same day, mustard greens on a different day, and so on, to make sure they’re ready for harvest at the same time.

Q. I confess I feel myself heading back toward growing greens in blocks, not rows, sort of “Square Foot Garden” style. I know, how retro of me. But it’s almost easier to lightly broadcast seeds over a square than to carefully space little seeds in rows.

A. Totally. I think it depends on the amount of space you’re growing in and what tools you have—we’re typically seeding 100-200 bed feet at a time, and we use a six-row seeder for precision. If we didn’t have that seeder, I wouldn’t be out sprinkling seeds in rows. Broadcasting seeds works great, too. The one thing you miss out on with broadcasting is the ability to hoe between the rows if any weeds come up before your crop, but if you’re only seeding a few feet, hand-pulling weeds is probably faster than spacing out tiny lettuce seeds in rows.

Q. And that raises the topic of spacing…which I think brings up the case for sowing indoors or in flats or cellpacks and having seedlings on hand. In summer especially it can be a drag to try to keep things moist for good germination if direct sowing. Thoughts?

A. I agree!  If you aren’t able to stay on top of watering during the germination phase, then transplanting is the way to go. Before we had an irrigation system with sprinklers, we’d be out hand-watering with a hose and spend hours just watering all the beds of direct-seeded greens. Irrigation and transplanting are both real time savers.

Another reason we love transplanting is because we can flip crops a lot faster.  Harvest one, rake out the bed, and get another crop in the soil immediately. It really increases the potential yield and decreases the amount of time the soil is left bare. And we’ve found it cuts down on weeds a lot, since every time we prepare a bed for transplanting, any little weeds are disturbed in the process of raking and planting.

Q. I suspect your family eats its share of salad, so I have to ask: dressing? Any secret mix there that you want to divulge?

A. Oh, yes! I recently discovered peach-infused white balsamic vinegar and basil infused olive-oil. Paired they are the epitome of a summer salad. I’m more of an experimental cook, and don’t often follow recipes, so I’ll just give you the ingredients I use: the peach balsamic and basil olive oil with salt and pepper is my new favorite simple dressing. If I want to thicken it up, I add a few squeezes of stone-ground mustard, then shake it all together.

When I want a heartier salad, I go for a tahini-maple dressing. I mix tahini, olive oil, and a bit of maple syrup (I prefer a darker grade of maple, with more flavor and less of an overt sugar taste).  And when there’s no dressing, I still eat salad! Because it’s delicious.

more from kate spring and good heart farmstead

GOOD HEART’S business structure is special, too: It’s an L3C, or limited-profit or low-profit liablility corporation—“sort of a mix between a non-profit and for-profit business, a for-profit but with a social mission in the forefront,” says Kate–in this case, the social goal being to increase access to food for low-income Vermonters.

(All photos from Kate Spring at Good Heart Farmstead and the Good Heart Life.)

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