Healthy Beginnings

Don’t Worry—We’ll Catch You

“A Rough Patch”

I was having a cup at the local coffee shop when Sheila came in. We’d both been to the double-header concert the Great Basin Arts Council put on last week. The second one was definitely high energy, and the venue allowed for dancing. We chatted about how much fun we’d had, and then the conversation turned to gardening, as so many conversations seem to do.

Or at least I thought we’d changed subjects.

“You know,” Sheila said. “You could put in a little mache area at your place.”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “To tell you the truth, my dancing the other night was a bit of an aberration.”

“Oh, don’t worry. People probably didn’t notice the way you dance. But about the mache….’

“And really, Sheila, at our age, you just don’t loft yourself into a sea of strangers. Too many brittle parts.”

“Not M-O-S-H,” Sheila explained. “M-A-C-H-E. Same pronunciation, different thing altogether. Mache is a salad green, sometimes called lamb’s lettuce or corn salad. If you grow it with a little protection, you can eat it fresh all winter long.”

In Europe, mache used to grow wild in the “corn,” as all grain was called before one we know as corn was available there, hence the name corn salad. It was a welcome bit of freshness in the winter diet because of a unique property: mache can freeze solid, and when it thaws, resume growing. If it is allowed to thaw completely before it’s harvested, taste and texture will be none the worse.

With its mild and nutty flavor, it’s less of an acquired taste than some wild greens—arugula and dandelions come to mind. Mache is a small plant—it grows in rosettes that rarely top six inches. Although there are several varieties available in Europe, only a few have reached the American market.

The seeds germinate erratically, and it does not like heat. Some sources recommend planting mache around Labor Day. Eliot Coleman, who writes extensively about winter gardening, recommends planting mache from then through early November. Since it cools down slowly in Nevada sometimes, it’s probably best to err towards the November side.

Coleman claims that cold isn’t the limiting factor for mache in the winter, light is. He grows it successfully in Maine, and our location considerably further south give us lots more winter daylight. He does give his mache the protection of a hoop house, with a layer of floating row cover and another of greenhouse plastic.

If it is happy, mache will reseed itself prolifically, as many lettuces do. It almost serves as a groundcover in my friend Becca’s yard. Although it survives the winter for her just fine uncovered, she says that a layer of protection would help preserve the quality.

The difficulty with mache here in Nevada is getting it to germinate in time. Sheila claims that when she planted mache in early September, very little came up that fall, but it was out of bed really early in the spring. But as soon as the first heat hit, it turned bitter and bolted.

Since mache can be planted late in the season and its fertility needs are only moderate, mache is ideal to tuck in after another crop is finished. I plan to hot-sheet (or in this case, cold-sheet) mine with some carrots that will be used up long before mid-October, when I’ll plant it. I’ll make sure the seed-bed is nice and loose, and thoroughly moist. I may add a little compost if I’m in the mood, but not much, perhaps an inch of it.

Before I plant, I’ll let the seeds soak overnight on a damp paper towel, to nudge them into breaking dormancy. Even so, I’ll use plenty of seeds and be careful not to plant them too deep. I’ll throw some floating row cover on low hoops, keep the soil moist, and hope for the best.

If it doesn’t grow, I’ll look into hiring a band to play Johnny Cash hits. After all, he penned the ultimate mosh lyrics: “I fell down, down, down in a freezing pit of mosh. . .”

When Teresa Howell is not bustin’ a move, she teaches English at Great Basin College.