Sensational salads start with homegrown lettuce

Mesclun, baby lettuce, organic radicchio - they're pricey at the supermarket, but inexpensive and oh-so-easy to grow at home.

And because salad greens prefer cool weather, most can be planted long before tomatoes and other summer crops.

Shep Ogden, co-founder of The Cook's Garden in Londonderry, Vt., says he always plants lettuce on April 15, even though he knows that his area can often be hit by frosts until early June. "In spring, lettuce can take [temperatures] down to 15 degrees F.," he says.

So if you're anxious to get out and dig in the dirt, salad greens are an ideal early crop.

Since a packet of lettuce seeds usually costs less than $2 and can be used for several years, it's fun to experiment by growing a few plants of several types.

That's possible even if you don't have much space for a garden, because shallow-rooted lettuce makes a fine container plant.

Many lettuce varieties are also decorative enough to hold their own at the front of the flower border - as long as you don't use chemical sprays.

I especially like to use red radicchio and multicolored varieties of lettuce this way. With its crinkly leaves and green background overlaid with burgundy, Red Sails lettuce (see photo at right) always earns favorable comments from those who see it.

Mesclun - a blend of mild, spicy, and bitter salad greens - generally looks better when grown in a plot by itself since you harvest by the cut-and-come-again method. Let the plants grow to about 4 inches tall, harvest as much as you need for a meal - cutting stems to 1 inch high - and they will grow back again.

There's no standard definition of what greens will be in a packet of mesclun. Usually there are several different kinds of lettuce, plus chicory (one type of which is radicchio). But arugula, cress, endive, mustard, mache (corn salad), even dandelion may be present.

I often buy individual packets of seeds and combine them to make a one-of-a-kind mesclun mix. My current favorites are Coquille mache, Lollo Rossa and Black Seeded Simpson lettuces, Sweet Trieste chicory, chervil, broadleaf cress, and Selvatica arugula (all from The Cook's Garden, www. cooksgarden.com or 800-457-9705).

I sow the seeds 1/8-inch deep as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring, and begin harvesting about 30 to 40 days later. Then I start a new crop every 10 days until hot weather finally arrives. By then, I've enjoyed several months of sensational salads.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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