With the New Year upon us, one of the first crops gardeners can start planting is greens. Cold hardy greens can be sown as soon as the ground thaws. If you have protected fall planted greens this winter, they will be starting to grow again as soon as the days lengthen and temperatures moderate. If it's still too cold to get growing in your garden, check out catalogs and web sites for favorite varieties. Whether you're planning or planting, now is the time to start your greens garden.
For your New Year's gardening resolution, why not try some different crops in 2005? Instead of growing the usual cast of leafy green characters, such a spinach and lettuce, try some unusual specialty greens. Specialty greens are fast growing; often maturing in less than 50 days from seeding. Many are originally from exotic locations and have unique flavors. They add a zip to salads and an international flair to your garden.
Just across the pond in Europe are some specialty greens that are becoming more widely known and grown in this country. Many grow best sown in the cool of late winter and spring. Arugula is a quick growing green with a peppery, sweet flavor. Arugula tastes sweetest when grown during cool weather. Escarole is a frilly-leafed lettuce that produces a tight head. The interior blanched leaves have a tender texture and mild flavor. For a sample of continental green flavors, try growing a mesclun mix. This mix blends various greens and lettuces into an intriquing salad combination. Mache (corn salad) is a heat-loving specialty green with spoon-shaped, soft buttery leaves.
From the other side of the world comes a variety of greens that have unusual shapes and tastes. Mizuna features finely cut, slender leaves, a mild flavor, and the ability to regrow after the first cutting. Taht Soi has dark green, spoon-shaped leaves that are tasty in salads and stir frys. Shogoin turnips are grown as much for their tender greens as their roots.
Not to be outdone by foreign countries, on this continent there are some great traditional greens to grow. Mustards and collards are Southern favorites. These vigorously growing, large plants have a strong flavor. When picked young the flavor is less piquant. They make a good compliment to milder flavor of other greens. Kale loves the cool weather producing large leaves with a strong flavor. Like mustard, the young leaves have a milder flavor. All of these greens are great eaten raw, in stir frys, in soups, or steamed.
Greens love a rich soil so amend the bed where you'll be planting with compost. Consider planting the greens on a raised bed. Raised beds allow the soil to dry out faster and warm up sooner. Keep the pH in the 6.0 to 7.0 range for best growth.
For cold weather loving greens such as arugula and kale, sow seeds as soon as the soil has dried out. You can sow seeds in single rows on the raised bed or broadcast seeds over the entire bed. Since many greens such as mesclun mix and arugula are harvested while the leaves are still small, broadcasting allows you to completely cover the bed with greens. For plants that you'd like to grow into larger plants such as mustard and kale, thin the young seedlings (and eat them!) so the plants are eventually spaced 6 to 10 inches apart.
Keep the bed well weeded and watered. Soak the soil thoroughly when watering. Since you're harvesting the leaves, your greens will need plenty of nitrogen fertilizer to produce the most and healthiest leaves. Apply a soluble fertilizer every few weeks to keep them growing strong. If frost threatens, cover the bed with a floating row cover or hotkap.
As soon as the true leaves form you can start harvesting your greens. For mesclun mixes and mizuna cut off the greens at the soil line and they will regrow for another harvest. As you thin seedlings to their proper spacing, harvest the young plants for salads. Hand pick the oldest leaves of your kale and mustard to encourage the young leaves to keep growing.
For more information on growing greens in your garden go to the Virtual Vegetable Guide at www.willhiteseed.com/store/asp/guides.asp
Question of the Week
Q. I have a small raised-bed garden. I know there are certain vegetables that should not follow others in a rotation.What can I plant in the space where I had leeks last year?
A. Leeks are onions members of the onion family, so do not plant onions or garlic in the same spot. Crop rotation reduces the population of pests and diseases that concentrate in the soil, and can also be used to manage soil nutrients. The squashes (including pumpkins, melons, and cucumbers), the brassicas (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts), and tomato family (including peppers, eggplants, and potatoes) should be rotated on at least a three year basis. An easy schedule is to rotate the three groups above while also alternating with greens (lettuce, mesclun) and legumes (beans and peas) for a four or even five year system.
You can also base your crop rotation on the nutritional needs of the plants. Heavy feeding crops, such as tomatoes, corn, and the brassicas, should be alternated with light feeding crops such as greens, root vegetables, bulbs and herbs, or legumes such as peas and beans.