Looking for some easy crops to grow? A veteran gardener and plant breeder recommends seven low-labor, fast-growing greens to grow via what she’s coined the “eat-all greens” method. All make delicious cooking greens.
I discovered what I coined the “eat-all greens” garden method mostly by accident 20 years ago. At the time, I lived in downtown Corvallis, Oregon, and tended only two small garden beds. At one point, I ordered 2 cubic yards of compost. Having no vehicle in that era, I had the compost delivered and dumped onto my concrete driveway. While I stood there looking at that pile of compost, I realized that if I just spread it around on the driveway, I could double my gardening space.
I quickly spread the compost into a broad bed about 6 inches deep and broadcast ‘Green Wave’ mustard seed. Then, I did … absolutely nothing. No weeding. No thinning. After about two months, I harvested an unbelievable amount of greens. I had stumbled upon the perfect variety, planting time and planting density for my first eat-all-greens garden bed.
The ‘Green Wave’ mustard plants in my driveway bed were about 4 inches apart in all directions and about 14 inches tall. They were quite different from the bigger plants I usually grew with wider spacing. Given more room, the stems of ‘Green Wave’ become stringy, and the lower leaves grow tough and unpalatable. Harvesting in that scenario is a relatively time-consuming matter of picking individual prime leaves. But in my driveway bed, every part of the plant from about 4 inches above the soil line and up was tender and succulent, including the central stem. So, I clear-cut the entire patch at 4 inches high, knowing I could freeze some. The raw greens were blazingly hot, but after boiling for two minutes, their heat vanished and they became delicious, flavorful cooked greens.
Until this happy growing accident, I thought gardening required a certain amount of labor. But I’d discovered a new standard. I wanted to focus on these incredibly easy crops to grow, and just sow the seed and harvest. And by growing appropriate varieties in this manner, this epitome of gardening laziness is actually achievable, as well as quite delicious and rewarding.
The eat-all method is similar to the cut-and-come-again method. In both, you broadcast seed in beds and harvest plants by clear-cutting. In cut-and-come-again beds, however, you sow plants an inch or less apart in all directions and usually harvest by clear-cutting at 6 inches tall or shorter. The result is tender salad greens, but with low yields per cutting. In eat-all beds, plants are 2 to 4 inches apart in all directions, 1 to 2 feet high when harvested, and usually used as cooking greens.
Over the subsequent two decades, I tested more than 200 varieties for use as eat-all greens. For many species, I found no variety that worked. For most species, only certain varieties worked. I discovered that all the good eat-all varieties are loose-leaf greens. They yield much more per unit of land and labor than any variety of head-style greens.
To qualify as an eat-all green, the variety must germinate rapidly and grow quickly enough to cast adequate shade, which will out-compete and stunt all weeds. The variety’s form must be erect enough (at proper planting density) so that the leaves and stems stay clean. In addition, when so grown, the parts of the plant above the clear-cutting level must be tender, succulent and prime — so you won’t need to pick over or sort the harvested leaves, and kitchen prep time will be minimal. Finally, the variety must produce a large amount of edible greens for the space and preferably, within two months or so, allow for multiple successions. Here are a few of my favorite eat-all varieties, all of which you can grow using the method I described for ‘Green Wave’ mustard.
‘Green Wave’ mustard (Brassica juncea). Broadcast seed in spring or fall. In mild-winter areas, early March is ideal for the spring planting because later spring plantings bolt. Young plants are frost-hardy.
‘Shunkyo’ and ‘Saisai’ leaf radishes (Raphanus sativus). Radishes bred primarily for the leaves are popular in Japan, China and Korea, but are little-known in the United States. They’re the ultimate in fast-growing greens, and they’re the most productive I know of, too. For example, on one Fourth of July, I broadcast the seed of ‘Saisai,’ a hybrid variety, over a 5-by-5-foot patch of garden. I watered, but did no weeding, thinning or other labor. I harvested 13.3 pounds of greens on Aug. 14, a mere 41 days later. In maritime Oregon, I can easily plant four successions because the crop grows so quickly. This means that my single 5-by-5-foot garden bed could yield more than 50 pounds of greens in a season. Just plant smaller beds in succession if you want smaller harvests. In areas with moderate summers, you can grow leaf radishes from early spring to late fall. In regions with hot summers, grow leaf radishes in spring and fall. Most of the varieties available in the United States are hybrids. However, ‘Shunkyo’ is a nice Chinese heirloom that produces both prime greens and a delicious, sweet-yet-pungent, 4-inch-long, red root that I like to cook along with the greens. Now that’s a true eat-all crop!
‘Groninger Blue’ collard-kale (Brassica napus). Most kale varieties fail to grow fast enough and produce enough biomass when they’re young to make good eat-all-greens varieties, and they usually have tough central stems. ‘Groninger Blue,’ however, is a glorious eat-all crop, and has all the virtues of both a collard and a kale. It’s in the same class as ‘Red Russian’ kale, but grows much faster, yields more as a young plant, has a succulent central stalk, and overwinters much better. In areas with mild summers, you can plant it from early spring through fall. When I harvest this variety, I like to clear-cut most of the plants but leave some in the garden, spaced properly to grow into big plants for overwintering.
‘Burgundy’ amaranth (Amaranthus ssp.). None of the red-leaved or red-striped varieties of amaranth I’ve tested grow fast enough to be good eat-all varieties. ‘Burgundy’ amaranth, on the other hand, is one of my favorite warm-weather eat-all greens. It has green leaves with brilliant red seed heads. You can sow it as an eat-all crop and then selectively clear-cut most of its greens, leaving some properly spaced plants to make a grain crop.
‘Tokyo Bekana’ Chinese cabbage (Brassica rapa). This is a chartreuse-colored, loose-leaf Chinese cabbage. It has a mild, almost lettuce-y flavor, and it’s good as either a raw salad or cooking green.
‘Red Aztec’ huauzontle (aka ‘Red Aztec’ Indian spinach; Chenopodium berlandieri ). This Mexican heirloom, a slower-bolting relative of quinoa, is a superb summer eat-all green. I plant it from late spring through summer.
One of my favorite ways to prepare eat-all greens is to drop them into a simmering soup or stew during the last few minutes of cooking. All seven of the varieties discussed here are great in stir-fries, too, or added to a mix of fermented vegetables.
I also love to make Southern-inspired “mess o’ greens.” I boil the greens for 1 to 3 minutes, drain them, and dress them with something wonderful. Your favorite salad dressing will do, as will feta cheese, Italian seasonings, pepper, and vinegar or lemon juice. The combination of fried bacon bits, bacon fat, pepper and vinegar is a classic Southern approach. For a filling meal, layer eat-all greens on a bed of polenta topped with hamburger gravy or spaghetti sauce and meatballs.
With such excellent yields, you’ll likely have extras, and the greens are ideal for freezing. Blanch them in unsalted boiling water for 1 to 3 minutes. Then, drain the greens (reserving the broth) and spread them out on a baking sheet to cool. (If left in a hot pile, the greens will overcook.) Press the cooled greens into serving-sized freezer containers, cover with cooled broth, and freeze. Then, just warm up the greens and broth when you’re ready to eat them, or toss the frozen greens and broth into soups and stews for winter meals.
To find seeds of the eat-all greens recommended in this article, search the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Seed and Plant Finder or purchase them from the following mail-order seed companies.
‘Green Wave’ mustard: Bountiful Gardens, Fedco Seeds, Fertile Valley Seeds, High Mowing Organic Seeds, Nichols Garden Nursery and Restoration Seeds.
‘Shunkyo’ leaf radish: Fertile Valley Seeds, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Kitazawa Seed Co. and Wild Garden Seed.
‘Saisai’ hybrid leaf radish: Fedco Seeds and Kitazawa Seed Co.
‘Groninger Blue’ collard-kale: Fertile Valley Seeds, Nichols Garden Nursery and William Dam Seeds (Canada).
‘Burgundy’ amaranth: Bountiful Gardens, Fertile Valley Seeds, Nichols Garden Nursery, Restoration Seeds and Wild Garden Seed.
‘Tokyo Bekana’ Chinese cabbage: Fedco Seeds, Fertile Valley Seeds, High Mowing Organic Seeds, Nichols Garden Nursery and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.
‘Red Aztec’ huauzontle (also called “Indian spinach”): Fertile Valley Seeds, Nichols Garden Nursery, Terroir Seeds and Wild Garden Seed.
Oregon seed-company owner and author Carol Deppe breeds vegetable varieties for organic systems. Find more eat-all-greens varieties and tips in her most recent book, The Tao of Vegetable Gardening. For more books, articles and seeds, visit Carol Deppe's website.