Enjoy some lamb’s lettuce
Corn salad (Valerianella locusta) is an extremely hardy vegetable, and although it can be cultivated all year round, it makes its most welcome appearance when grown for use in winter salads.
As its name implies, this leafy, low-growing annual vegetable grows wild in cornfields in parts of Great Britain and Europe. It is much enjoyed by grazing sheep, who consume large amounts of the wild plant. Its other name, lamb’s, may have arisen because of this appeal to sheep, or because the height of its season in the wild coincides with lambing time. The uncultivated variety looks rather like a large dandelion and is too coarse for human consumption; the cultivated form has larger, more succulent leaves, 7.5 cm (3”) long, some broad-leaved, some narrow-leaved and reaches a height of 15-23 cm (6-9”). Its slightly earthy flavour is stronger than that of cos lettuce but milder than that of the dandelion. You can either eat it raw or cook it just like any other leaf vegetable. Varieties of Italian origin have especially long and tender leaves. Corn salad is popular on the Continent, where it is in regular demand through the winter.
There are two main attractions in growing corn salad. Firstly, you can use it for catch-cropping, a term which means the growing of quick-maturing vegetables between rows of slower-growing crops. You could, for instance, grow corn salad between rows of. Its greatest advantage, however, is that it can be grown for use as a salad vegetable in winter, when other salad greens are scarce in the garden and expensive to buy. Except for one of the Italian varieties, this very hardy plant can even withstand the effects of snow and frost. Despite this hardiness, you will nevertheless have greater success with winter crops if you give the plants the added protection of cloches while they are growing. Not only will they mature more quickly, but the leaves will also be larger and more tender. Cloches should be placed over the plants by mid autumn. If cloches are not available, you can achieve the same effect by drawing straw, hay or bracken up over the plants.
Choose a sunny, fairly sheltered site for growing corn salad. This is especially important if you want to harvest the crop in winter. Since daylight is limited at this time of year, the plants will need to receive as much of the available light as possible if they are to make the necessary growth.
The crop will grow on almost any, but you-will get the best results on sandy, well-drained soil enriched for a previous crop. It is a good idea, in any case, to dig in a barrow-load of well-rotted garden or farmyard manure to every 10 sq m (12 sq yd) of soil. You can also fork fish manure into the top 7.5—10 cm (3-4”), at the rate of 120 g per sq m (4 oz per sq yd) and dust the surface of the soil with hydrated lime some weeks later.
Seed may be sown from late winter onwards, and in summer crops will be ready for harvesting about eight weeks after sowing but in winter they take about twelve weeks. For winter crops, however, you should sow the seed much later. If you live in the north, there is no need to do any sowing before midsummer. If you live in the south, you can start sowing in late summer, and then, to ensure a steady supply of the surface. You should then rake it in, and vegetable, you can make successive firm the soil gently by treading. A more sowings every two weeks until mid useful and practical technique, however, autumn, putting the last sowing under is to sow the seed in drills.
When theare small, it is very important that you do not allow the roots to dry out. Also keep an eye on the plants in late summer, and give them a thorough watering if a dry spell occurs.
Thin the seedlings to 15 cm (6”) apart when they have formed three leaves. Keep the plants free of, and, before covering them with cloches or otherwise, hoe along the rows.
Fortunately, corn salad is a generally trouble-free crop. The only pests you might have to deal with are birds, which attack the young plants, and slugs, which are also likely to attack seedlings and young plants; moist conditions will encourage them.
A few days before harvesting, you can partially blanch the plants by covering them with boxes or plant pots. This will produce a milder flavour, which some people prefer. If you are using plant pots for this purpose, you do not need to cover up the drainage holes.
Opinions differ as to how corn salad should be harvested. One method is to pull up or cut off the whole plant at the root. You can wait until three or four leaves are fully developed before you do this, or you can leave the plants to become more bushy. The disadvantage of harvesting in this way is that those plants which are left untouched continue to grow, and may thus become too large and tough to use before you actually need them. An alternative and better method of harvesting is to pick tender young leaves from different plants as they grow, thus allowing all your plants to develop at the same rate. If following this technique, start by taking from plants that have developed four leaves, and increase the number of leaves picked as the plants become bigger. It is extremely important, however, that you do not take too many leaves from any one plant in one picking, or the plant may be weakened beyond recovery. Never at any point take more than half of the developed leaves.
Whichever method of harvesting you choose, do not wait too long before picking, or the plants will produce flower heads and the flowering stems will become tough and coarse. Wash all the leaves well to remove any soil or grit and use as soon as possible.
There are several varieties of corn salad which you can grow, and which vary in their degrees of hardiness. French Cabbaging, with its erect, dark green leaves, is one of the hardiest types. It is particularly useful if you live in a mild area and want to produce tender, succulent crops in the open without the protection of cloches or straw. Another especially frost-hardy variety is Verte de Cambrai. Other types include the Broad or Large-leaved English, and the least hardy variety, Italian Lettuce-leaved, which is really only suitable for the warmest areas.