Hardy, productive, and delicious, growing greens is one of the easiest decisions you can make when you're putting in a vegetable garden.
Greens must be just about the easiest possible crop for the home gardener to grow and prepare. Not only do the tasty potherbs—which range in flavor from pungent to mild— practically raise them selves, but they're also extremely economical (a small packet of seeds can keep you stocked with fresh victuals for months!).
What's more, the leaf vegetables are amazingly nutritious: A one-cup cooked serving of most greens contains lots of iron and calcium, several B vitamins, more vitamin C than an orange, nearly a full day's supply of vitamin A ... and less than 20 calories!
And if those advantages aren't enough to make you put down this magazine, run out into the snow, and start staking out next spring's greens patch ... consider this: Many of the "bile up and eat" garden wonders are also very frost-resistant. In fact, some potherbs (kale, for instance) are such sturdy weather beaters that—if you started growing greens in your garden last summer—you could be harvesting perfectly tasty fronds right now! (And I do too know what month this is!)
Of course, there're plenty of different greens crops, and each has its own peculiar growing needs and eating flavor. But before I whet your appetite by telling you about individual "leafers"—from India mustard to bok choy—let me share a bit of general greens-growin' how-to. Naturally, this information won't apply to every single species of fronded foodstuff (for example, New Zealand spinach thrives during hot weather, but dies quickly when hit by a frost ... while most greens favor cool days and become bitter when the air gets too hot). My potherb primer will, however, serve as a basic planting, harvesting, and cooking guide.
Most greens seeds can be sowed as soon as the soil can be worked (just as the seed packets say), which—in many parts of the country—will turn out to be six or eight weeks before the anticipated date for the last spring frost. The potherb kernels should be worked into rich, well composted soil ... to encourage fast growth (rapid maturing promotes both the flavor and tenderness of greens). Sow the seeds in rows that are a foot or more apart. And be generous when you spread those pellets. (That way, when your thickly sprouted rows need thinning ... you'll actually be gathering your first batch of young, juicy greens!)
Later, if the weather suddenly turns cold after you plant, simply protect your potherb beds by insulating them with burlap bags or old newspapers weighted down at the edges with rocks. (Remove these blankets when the sprouts appear.)
To ensure continuous spring greens harvests, you might want to sow successive sets of leaf vegetable seeds—at two-week intervals—timed so your last planting will mature by early summer. You can't count on getting much of a midsummer greens yield with most species, because leafers tend to bolt (go to seed) quickly during hot weather ... a maturation process which makes the plants' foliage turn tough and bitter. However, if you replant a greens crop in August or September, you'll be able to have lots of fall and winter-harvested eats.
Although greens are simplicity itself to grow, there are a few tricks to stretching their harvest season in order to keep your yields plentiful and succulent for as long as possible. For one thing, be sure to pick some of the growing leaves off your greens plants (after the blades are large enough to harvest, of course) each and every week ... even if you're not going to eat the fronds. Such a "pruning" tactic will keep the plants busy producing new tender leaves instead of maturing tough old "chewy" ones. Likewise, pinch off any bloom stalks as soon as they appear so your plants won't be able to bolt. (By the way, if those flower buds come from any of the mustard greens, you can cook and eat the tasty bits just as you would broccoli heads.) Lastly, make certain that your plants are always well watered. Otherwise, the drying vegetables will "think" they're about to die ... and expend their last gasp by going to seed!
The simplest way of preparing some fresh-picked potherbs for the dinner table is to wash the harvest, and boil (or steam) the victuals down—in a little lightly salted water—until they're just tender enough for chewing (never overcook 'em!). Then drain and slice the vegetables (save the nutritious "pot likker" for soup broth, drinking, or sopping up with corn bread), and serve the fixin's topped with a pat of butter, a dab of sour cream, or your favorite dressing.
Young greens leaves can also be used as garnishes, or added raw to salads or sandwiches. Older fronds can be layered into lasagna, cooked in curry dishes, added to cheese and rice casseroles, or dipped in batter and fried like tempura. I'll tell you about some of the other ways to use greens when we get to talking about individual vegetables, but—for heaven's sake—don't let my suggestions limit your kitchen ingenuity. Feel free to mix different greens to create a tempting flavor balance ... replace a recipe's potherbs with other leaves more suited to your taste ... or—best yet—invent a brand new "greens cuisine" of your own!
By this point, you should be so impressed with both the hardiness and usefulness of leaf foods that you're rarin' to grow! So let me tell you a bit about some of the many different cultivated potherbs.
Although most folks probably think of mustard as a spicy spread for hot dogs, several members of the condiment producing plant family are grown exclusively for their fine, tangy leaves. The most common of these is called India mustard (Brassica juncea) ... or just plain mustard. (The popular wiener topping is made from the seeds of "white" Brassica alba or "black" Brassica nigra.)
India mustard is a fairly frost-hardy spring and fall green that tastes a bit sharp when raw (although the very youngest leaves are quite good in salads), but has a much milder flavor when cooked. The main tricks to raising a savory mustard crop (as well as to cultivating many other greens) are to grow the plant during cool weather, keep the soil around the roots moist, and harvest the leaves while they're young (and only four to six inches long). Otherwise—if the mustard foliage gets too hot, too large, or too dry—you may find that your peppy-but-pleasing vegetable has suddenly turned into a full-fledged tonsil burner!
If you want to fix your mustard greens in a classic Southern fashion, boil 'em up with a chunk of ham hock or fatback pork ... or cook the leaves together with a taste-complementing batch of fresh turnip tops.
Tendergreen is actually nothing more than one particular variety of India mustard (it can be prepared the same way as other members of its family) which has such superior growing qualities that gardeners have given it a special name. The popular green (sometimes called mustard spinach, since its leaves resemble those of Popeye's favorite food) has become such a grower's delight because it matures quickly (tendergreen often takes only 25 days to age instead of the 35 or 40 required by most mustards) ... never becomes too spicy in flavor (in either hot or cold weather) ... and continues putting out mild, crisp leaves for quite a long time before it finally goes to seed. In fact—if you're careful to harvest tendergreen's leaves and not its roots—a single plant may produce enough foliage for two or three pickings!
Still—despite all its virtues—mustard spinach is definitely not a midsummer crop ... it grows best with either a spring or fall planting.
Spinach (Spinacia oleracea) has all the growing habits of a typical green: It's a frost-hardy, excellent spring and fall garden crop (which—in some areas—can even be harvested in winter) that bolts and turns bitter during hot weather. The seeds are a little slow to sprout, though, so you might want to mark your newly planted rows with some quick-starting radishes ... just to remind you not to trample on your little spinach "beginners."
Harvest the maturing crop as soon as the first five or six leaves have reached eating size (don't wait for these blades to get large and bitter). Simply snip the entire cluster off while being sure to let as much of the main stem remain intact as possible. From then on, clip each plant again whenever three or four new leaves mature.
For a flavorful vegetable dish, try using your green gatherings to make spinach pie. Begin the filling for this dinner course by cooking 2 pounds of cleaned spinach along with 2 tablespoons of butter, 1/4 teaspoon of grated nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste, and enough water to barely cover the fresh leaves. When the greens are tender, pour off the excess liquid and mix your stewed spinach with 1/4 pound of grated cheddar or Gruyere cheese. Lay this combination in a pie shell, cover it with a second crust, and place the dish in a 375°F oven. After 45 minutes, increase the heat to 450° for a few moments until the top of the pastry is crisp and golden.
Then just pull the pie out ... and dig your teeth in!
Surprisingly enough, New Zealand spinach (actually a member of the carpetweed family) prefers the opposite growing season to that favored by its more common namesake: The "imported imposter" (Tetragonia expansa) is rather sensitive to frost, but makes a fine May-to-September (hot weather) greens crop.
The immigrant is also a slow grower and takes nearly two months to mature (you'd be wise, therefore, to intersperse a New Zealand spinach planting with a short-season crop like radishes or leaf lettuce). When the potherb has matured enough to harvest, be sure not to cut its tall center shoot. Instead, collect your kitchen fixin's by picking only the young side leaves and leaving the main stalk unbroken ... to reap a continuous, all-summer-long spinach yield.
For all the differences between the two plants, New Zealand spinach leaves taste exactly like "regular" spinach greenery: The youngest side shoots are good raw, the older blades have a bitter toughness, and the cooking-size foliage tastes just right in prepared dishes ... such as a simple omelet.
To make one of these tummy-pleasing egg courses, first simmer a half cup of the "kiwi" spinach in water with just a small amount of butter, a half clove of fresh garlic, a pinch of coriander, and salt and pepper to taste. Then put this filling aside while you whip up four seasoned-to-taste eggs and slowly cook them in a large, well-buttered frying pan. When the eggs are almost done (you can slowly "twirl" the pan around—and even lift the omelet's edge here and there with a spatula—to make sure the eggs are cooking evenly), spoon in the spinach mixture, flip one half of the "yellow pancake" over on top of the other, finish cooking, and—yum!—serve.
Sure, everybody knows that turnips (Brassica rapa) and beets (Beta vulgaris) are good garden root crops, but not all folks realize that the vegetables provide a bonus harvest: fresh greens! (In fact, some varieties of turnips are grown for their tops alone.) So if you plant a lot of either crop, you can enjoy young, tasty greens and small, tender roots ... every time you thin your plant rows. (Be careful, though, not to gather leaves from the particular turnip and beet plants you want to raise as full-fledged root crops.)
Both turnip and beet greens can be sowed early in the spring. However, turnips aren't a good hot-weather crop and will need to be replanted if you want a fall harvest ... beets—on the other hand—will keep on growing throughout those long hot days of August.
As to eatin', turnip greens taste especially good when boiled up with some of their young bulbs (cook these crunchy rootlets in the pot a bit to pre-tenderize them before you add the plant tops), and steamed beet greens are often served up with butter and lemon juice.
I told you that some varieties of turnips are grown just for their "toppings," right? Well, Swiss chard is actually a big-leaved, non bulbous-root-producing type of beet (Beta vulgaris, variety cicla). The greatest virtue of this beautiful plant (besides its cooking versatility and easy "grow-ability") is its impressive hardiness. Chard is both fairly frost-resistant and able to bear well all through the summer. Just keep plucking the outer leaves off the stalks, and the plants will give you mild-flavored greens from spring, through summer, into fall, and—since the plant is a perennial—on into the next growing year as well!
Chard is often eaten creamed: Simply mix 1 tablespoon of flour with an equal amount of melted butter in a pan, add 2 cups of chopped leaves and 1/2 cup of milk to the butter-flour paste, and cook the sauce (stirring it constantly) until it thickens. This smooth-textured delight makes a tasty treat served over toast ... or just "as is".
Chard stalks are also a crispy treat when substituted for Chinese vegetables in stir-fried dishes.
In my estimation, no greens crop rivals collards (Brassica oleracea, variety acephala) for production, longevity, and just plain good eatin'. The cabbage relatives are prominent in many deep-South gardens, where their ability to withstand both heat and cold makes them almost a year round vegetable treat. Collards are large plants that grow straight up—and take a lot of "sideways" garden space as well—but they're a sheer joy to harvest. Just leave the central stalk alone, cut the side leaves off at their stems ... and come back next week to gather more greens.
Collards tend to improve in flavor after frost and can endure the cold weather surprisingly well. In fact—up here in Portland, Oregon—my collards patch survived last winter's snow, hail, and severe ice storms ... as well as the longest cold spell our area's had in over 30 years!
A traditional Southern way to serve this hardy green—after stewing the leaves until they're tender—is to top the sliced vegetables with pieces of onion and dabs of vinegar. (That combination may sound a bit harsh on the taste buds, but try it before you judge it!)
Kale (Brassica oleracea, variety acephala) is closely related to collards: If you have been eyeing the Latin labels in this article, you've noticed that the two plants are of the same genus and species ... but unlike the famous deep-South green, kale does not grow on a central stalk. This non-heading cabbage (the word acephala means "without a head") also has a somewhat milder flavor than collards.
Kale leaves—unlike the foliage of most greens—don't take on a bitter taste as they get large (although the fronds do get a bit chewy in the summertime), but the plant's most impressive talent is its amazing cold-weather durability. Kale can overwinter and be harvested till spring in most climates, and the hardy potherb's flavor improves after a few frosts!
When it's time to cook some harvested kale, you might want to make an old Irish casserole called Colcannon. Start preparing this hearty winter dish by boiling four medium cubed potatoes until they're tender, and then mashing them up with 2 tablespoons of butter and about 1/3 cup of milk. Meanwhile, simmer three cups of chopped and washed kale along with a half-dozen sliced green onions (or a few cut-up leeks) for about five minutes. Combine all these ingredients in a baking dish ... spice the casserole with salt, pepper, and parsley ... and then bake it for 15 minutes in a 400°F oven. Top each serving of Colcannon with a small "pond" of melted butter ... and start eating!
The last garden green on our list is the oriental vegetable bok choy (Brassica chinensis). This many—named plant (it's often called celery cabbage, Chinese mustard, Pak Choi, white cabbage, and—along with several other vegetables—Chinese cabbage) is an excellent, but not very hardy, spring/fall green. Bok choy's a "two for one" potherb, too, because the plant's crunchy stems and its graceful leaves make great eating.
Although bok choy is as versatile as any other garden green, it's mainly renowned for its use in such Chinese dishes as stir fried vegetables. To create this single course dinner, fry up some onion and ginger slices—with a small amount of oil—in a hot skillet or wok. (At this point, if you want some meat in your dish, add thinly sliced beef or pork to the pan, and allow the meat to cook for a few minutes before you add the greens.) Then toss diagonally sliced bok choy—and whatever other compatible vegetables you might have on hand—into the sizzlin's. Remember while you're doing this to follow the basic law of stir-fry cookery: The longer a particular victual takes to become "crispy tender," the earlier you add it to the pan.
When your last ingredient's done just right, top the entire mix with a soy sauce and honey combination (mix the two ingredients to taste) and then immediately serve the stir-fried treat over hot steamed rice. Scrumptious!
We've now covered most of the best known cultivated greens, but there're still plenty of other domesticated potherbs available to the gardener as well. What's more, I've completely left out the zillions of delectable wild greens ... such as watercress, winter cress, purslane, amaranth, dandelion, burdock (seeds for home-growing these particular species can be had from many major garden supply companies), lamb's quarters, curled dock, plantain, fireweed, wood sorrel, wild grapes, shepherd's purse, and many others. The "untamed" greens are just as tasty—and fully as nutritious—as those garden-raised potherbs ... yet many backyard growers will spend hours weeding food plants like purslane and amaranth out of their gardens!
With all that wide variety of greens to choose from—and all the tasty ways to prepare 'em—I think every home gardener should have some of the leafy plants in his or her diet. And not just the "same old greens" you may have grown (or even foraged) before, either. Experiment with new potherbs. It's fun, healthful, and—best of all—delicious!
EDITOR'S NOTE: For those interested in learning how to identify wild greens, Lee Peterson's A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants of Eastern and Central North America (Houghton Mifflin Company) is one of the best.
And, for a good source of recipes to prepare foraged greens, it's still hard to beat Euell Gibbons' Stalking the Wild Asparagus (David McKay Company, Inc.) Both volumes may be purchased in many bookstores.