Lambs lettuce

Short version:

A slow growing, winter hardy salad that grows in short rosettes and happily self-seeds. It can be sown direct into most soils but also does well in pots on balconies and rooftops. It can be sown now in October or in the spring.

I think that lambs lettuce is the name most commonly used for valerianella locusta in these parts, but this leaf is often known as corn salad, field salad and mâche. I have also heard that this is the leaf in the Rapunzel story that the mother craved so badly, so I have called it rapunzel when showing it to kids in the edible garden at school.

How to grow

October is a great month to sow this salad. There is very little that can still be sown this late in the year, but this is a great salad to sow September to October in preparation for the winter months. It has sprung up in the school edible garden, having self seeded, a testament to it being a good time to grow it. It can also be sown in March and April. It does well sown directly into the soil outdoors. The soil does not need to be particularly fertile and it grows well in pretty much all soil conditions, though it does like full sun. It can also be sown in early winter under cover.

You need to give these plants some space as they grow in rosettes that hug the ground. They should really be about 15cm apart and I’ve found that pretty much all the lambs lettuce seeds I sow germinate. You can either show thinly in rows about 15cm apart (though you can harvest/thin the plants that are too close to each other) or what I like to do is pop them in and around other, taller plants, that are not very bushy or that grow slowly. As they grow so low and have few needs, they don’t form much competition.

My preferred time to grow lambs lettuce though is now, in October, after I’ve harvested and cleared some of the other annuals. They fill the time and space over winter and can be harvested before the spring crops go in. They have quite thick, slightly waxy leaves which might contribute to their winter hardiness (British winters anyway). They do well with frost and the cold weather isn’t detrimental to their taste or texture. They do grow slowly though, especially so in winter but it’s a nice one to just sow in a box or pot and dump on a balcony or roof, to be ignored for a couple of months.

It grows like a weed and self-seeds very well so you can establish a patch somewhere in the garden and leave it to do its thing. If you prefer your salad less unruly you can collect the seed heads after flowering and just shake them into a bag. Just as a weird warning though – I have done this twice and have found that there is an odd smell.  

They seem to be left alone by the slugs and snails in the garden.

How to harvest

When thinning the extra plants can be eaten.  They can then be treated as a cut and come again salad leaf by removing the outer most leaves each time or the whole plant can be pulled out. They are often found in salad bags in small rosettes. The flowers are also edible but as it diverts energy into flowering, leaf production decreases. Unlike many other leafy greens, the taste does not diminish with flowering.

How they taste

It is basically a lettuce like leaf with a hint of nuttiness. It has a bit more body and texture than lettuce though. We often eat them in salads or just as a garden snack. Little one loves to graze on it so we try and grow it where she can access it. She’s often quite fussy about salad leaves and won’t eat things like cos or iceberg lettuce – either home grown, or shop bought. They can be wilted and seasoned or thrown into cooked dishes at the last minute.      

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