I love to be able to eat fresh things in the winter and a mixture of salad leaves from the garden transforms any lunch into a gourmet delight. There’s a surprising amount of fresh greens that can be harvested through the coldest months and the bulk of many of my winter salads is provided by corn salad.
Trouble free corn salad
Also known as lamb’s lettuce, the small, deep green leaves of corn salad have a mild, slightly nutty flavour and are the perfect foil to stronger tasting leaves, such as rocket, mustard and land cress. What’s best about them though is that they are incredibly trouble-free to grow. While keeping pests off the rocket can be an endless chore, the corn salad is untouched by bird, snail or beetle. It is great for filling gaps in your beds in the winter because it is sown between late August and mid-October, and harvested from October right through to March. They are a true winter plant though. Try and grow them through the summer and they will wilt and suffer from mildew, which shows up as white, powdery spots on the leaves. This is because they have a very shallow root system so can’t access water from deeper in the soil. If the autumn is particularly warm and dry – like last year, then you might see you plants suffering from mildew, but all they need is a good drink and they’ll spring back to life. The varieties ‘Vit’ and ‘Verte de Cambrai’ both performed well for us last year.
With them being so easy to grow and remaining green at a time of scarcity in the garden, it’s a wonder that this crop is not more widely known and grown today. It certainly wasn’t so in the past, with corn salad regularly featuring on historical crop lists. The value of a plant that stays green through the winter before the advent of supermarket chiller cabinets, airfreight and bagged salads would have been well appreciated then, I’m sure. Gerard, who wrote about plants in the late 1500s says “We know the Lamb’s Lettuce as Loblollie: and it serves in winter as a salad herb among others none of the worst” and in 1784, Hannah Glasse published this simple recipe for a winter salad: “take corn salad and Horseradish scrap’d fine, dish it handsomely and serve it with oil and vinegar”. Raw horseradish sounds quite eye watering to me, however fine it may be scraped, but I like the principle of mixing a hot flavour with the mild corn salad leaves. Perhaps a dressing heavy on the mustard would work just as well?
Corn salad is really easy from seed. Even if you are new to growing from seed, this is a plant you can sow in situ (where you want it to grow) and it will reliably germinate and grow, it even self seeds if you allow it to flower, so there’s a good chance you’ll have it year after year in the garden. It is best to sow little and often, with early sowings reaching the eating stage in as little as six weeks, but the later ones will grow very slowly to be ready for January. Growth is slower in winter because of the cold and the low light levels; the plants just seem to sit there, unchanging, for months until you are ready to eat them. But as the light levels rise and the weather warms the plants quickly put on fresh growth ready for eating. You can either sow thickly, and then pick whole plants to eat very small – each leaf no bigger than a thumbnail, or spread them out more for larger plants which you can cut close to the ground, from where they’ll resprout 2 or 3 times. For the best of both worlds, you can sow thickly and then eat the thinning’s, to leave just a few plants at a larger spacing to cut and come again.