By: Russell Stafford
No garden vegetables offer more bang for the buck than those leafy wonders known collectively as greens. Nutritional champs of the vegetable tribe, they produce a season-long bonanza of vitamin- and mineral-packed foliage while requiring relatively little care. For home growers looking to eat healthier by upping their vegetable gardening game in 2017, greens are a great way to get there. They are the garden vegetables for your health.
They offer the added bonus of being trendy and made cool with diverse new offerings. What once was a bland garden province is now a colorful universe of hundreds of leafy vegetables representing a wealth of culinary traditions. Yesterday’s dutiful row of green looseleaf lettuce has given way to today’s exuberant waves of purple mustard, vibrant Swiss chard, ‘Red Russian’ kale, purple shiso, and other delectable foliar delights. It’s a cornucopia of leafy edibles out there.
From this world of possibilities, we’ve chosen seven outstanding leafy vegetables that will help make 2017 your healthiest vegetable gardening year ever.
What better place to start than with arguably the nutritional champion of vegetables, kale (Brassica oleracea)? Its dark green leaves brim with vitamins A, C, and K, and also offer significant amounts of calcium, magnesium, and iron. Elaborately ruffled varieties such as ‘Starbor’ get the most market play, but flat-leaved selections such as the aforementioned ‘Red Russian’ tend to be more flavorful, tender, and garden-worthy. The popular ‘Lacinato’ kale, commonly called dinosaur kale, is another perennial favorite.
Harvest begins about 1.5 to 2 months after sowing, and continues indefinitely, if leaves are taken a few at a time (“cut and come again”). As with many leafy vegetables, kale tastes stronger in heat and sweeter in flavor after frost. Like other brassicas, it is very hardy and works well as a “winter green” grown in a cold frame or hoop house. Although highly adaptable, it particularly thrives in sun and rich organic soil, benefitting from the addition of a good soil amendment, such as nitrogen-rich Fafard Garden Manure Blend. Sow seed in spring and fall for a perpetual summer-to-winter crop. Where winters are mild, plants will overwinter and bloom in spring, bearing golden yellow flowers that bees cannot resist.
Rivalling kale in adaptability and nutritional value, collards (Brassica oleracea) are a traditional Southern U.S. staple now found in markets and restaurants throughout North America (and beyond). Robust in both flavor and texture, the pungent, leathery, wavy-edged leaves begin to mature about 2 months after sowing, with cut-and-come-again harvests continuing well after frost. Though they will withstand summer heat, these hardy greens truly taste best when kissed with fall frost, so most gardeners opt to grow them as late-season greens. Like kale, collards germinate best indoors in slightly warm soil.
Kale and collards are both closely related to another nutrient-rich group of leaf vegetables, mustard greens (Brassica juncea) . Their fast-growing, peppery, tongue-shaped or lobed leaves make zingy garnishes for salads when young and tender, and even zingier additions to stir-fries as they mature and intensify in flavor. They’re at their best (in both flavor and vigor) in spring and fall, grown from an early spring or late summer sowing. When subjected to summer heat, they quickly bolt with golden yellow flowers that are also spicy and edible. Seed catalogs offer many excellent varieties deriving from East Asia (such as ‘Osaka Purple’) and the Southeastern U.S. (including ‘Southern Giant’), two regions where mustard greens have long been a hot commodity.
A leafy variant of garden beets, Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris var. cicla) lacks the pungent kick of the mustardy greens described above. It is a peer, however, in nutritional value and ease of culture. Produced continually from summer until hard frost, the stalked, crinkled leaves are excellent in salads when young, or for sautéing and stir-fries when mature (about 60 days after sowing). Several varieties of Swiss chard (such as ‘Bright Yellow’, ‘Ruby Red’, and ‘Bright Lights’) have colorfully stemmed and veined foliage that makes a decorative addition to annual beds and other ornamental plantings. Plants grow (and germinate) best in warm, fertile conditions. Their leaves taste sweeter and more flavorful in cool weather.
Spinach (Spinacia oleracea) is notorious for flowering quickly in the heat and dying. Malabar spinach (Basella alba), in contrast, thrives in areas with hot summers. It’s also ornamental, nutritious, and just plain fun. Unrelated to true spinach, this rapidly climbing tender perennial twines exuberantly up garden teepees and trellises. Edible when young, the stems are lined with heart-shaped leaves that have a mild chard-like flavor and that go well in salads or cooked dishes. The purple-stemmed variety ‘Rubra’ is as eye-catching as it is tasty.
Hot summers also don’t phase orach (Atriplex hortensis), another trendy green often suggested as a spinach substitute. Pairs of tender, tongue-shaped leaves are produced on low plants that flourish in most soils and climates. Ready for harvest a month or so after sowing, orach’s mild-flavored leaves are perfect for sprinkling in salads and sautéed dishes. Varieties with colorful foliage such as ‘Red, ‘Magenta Magic’, and multicolored ‘Aurora’ make arresting accents for kitchen and garden.
Also doubling nicely as an ornamental is shiso (Perilla frutescens), long a staple of East Asian cuisines. Its upright, 1- to 3-foot stems are densely set with pairs of wrinkled, heart-shaped leaves that resemble those of coleus (to which it’s closely related). The resemblance is particularly striking in burgundy-leaved forms such as ‘Aka Shiso’, which integrate nicely into annual borders, containers, and other ornamental plantings.
The spicy leaves (whose flavor is likened to anise or cinnamon) are good for salads, stir-fries, stews, pickling, drying and powdering, and garnishes. Tail-like clusters of small flowers extend from the plants in late summer, ripening to seed that falls to the ground and usually germinates the following spring. Plant perilla once, and you may never have to plant it again!
Fashionable and nutritious, these (and other) leafy veggies are just the thing for adding productivity and panache to gardens of all sorts and sizes. Whether you tend several acres or several containers, you’ll find there’s lots to love about greens.