Growing Green

By Susan Littlefield

Go green by growing greens! Not only are they tasty and packed with good nutrition, greens are easy to grow. And many thrive in cool temperatures, making them great for extending the harvest season in both spring and fall. In milder winter areas or given some protection in colder climates, you may even be able to enjoy homegrown greens on your table all winter long.

What makes dark leafy greens such powerhouses in the nutrition department? Not only are they packed with fiber, folate, Vitamins C and K, and minerals like iron and calcium, they also contain carotenoids that act as antioxidants in our bodies, compounds that research suggests may inhibit the growth of some types of cancer. But best of all, they taste delicious when picked at their tender best fresh from your home garden!

To maximize the nutritional potential of these healthful greens, eat them along with a little dietary fat to increase your body's absorption of their carotenoids and Vitamin K. Adding a teaspoon or two of olive or canola oil when cooking greens or using a salad dressing that contains some healthful fat will help you reap the biggest nutrition benefits from the greens in your diet.

Greens are among the easiest crops to grow. If you are short on garden space, they are a great choice for container growing. As we mentioned, many kinds of greens are quite cold hardy, giving you a harvest early in the season as well as late into the fall. But there are also choices that will thrive through the heat of summer, making it easy to "grow green" from spring through fall.

Here are just a few of many healthful and delicious dark leafy greens we carry.

'Georgia Southern' Collards (80 days) - Upright, 35-inch tall plants produce large, blue-green, crumpled leaves.

'Paris Island Cos' Romaine (66 days) - This lettuce produces tall, uniform heads with dark gray-green outer leaves and a pale green to cream interior.

'Southern Giant Curled' Mustard (50-60 days) - The bright green leaves of this large, slow-bolting variety are crumpled and heavily curled with frilled margins.

Taht Soi (45 days) - Small, dark, spoon-shaped, black-green leaves have a mild taste that is excellent in salads and stir-fries.

'Bloomsdale Long Standing' Spinach (45 days) - Thick, dark-green, medium sized leaves hold well in hot weather.

'Salad Bowl' Leaf Lettuce (45-50 days) - One plant fills a salad bowl with rich green, attractive leaves.

Tips for Cultivating Greens

ArugulaThis fast growing green, with its piquant flavor, can be spicing up your salads with baby leaves in as little as a month from seeding. It does best when the weather is cool and can be direct-sown in the garden as soon as the soil can be worked in spring. If you sow seeds in a cold frame or low tunnel, you may be able to start them as early as 8-12 weeks before your last frost date. Summer heat often makes arugula's taste overly strong, but begin planting again in late summer and fall for a second tasty harvest.

Chicories These include several types of greens whose leaves may be red or white as well as green, including endive, escarole, and radicchio. All have a pleasantly bitter flavor and all thrive in cool weather. Faster growing endive does well as a spring or fall crop, while slower growing radicchio and escarole generally do best as fall crops in most parts of the country so that temperatures remain cool as they mature.

Collards This cold-tolerant, non-heading member of the cabbage family is a good choice for fall and spring gardens. But many varieties show good heat tolerance as well, giving you a long season of nutritious harvests. For a spring crop, sow collards about 3 weeks before your last spring frost date; for fall harvest sow seeds about 3 months before you fall frost date. Collard greens taste best cooked and are delicious in soups and stews or braised in broth with some onions, bacon, and a dash of vinegar.

Kale Another hardy cabbage family member, kale is also a nutritional powerhouse. Start seeds about 3 months before your first fall frost date and set transplants in the garden about 4 weeks later to enjoy a harvest late into the fall and even early winter. Kale can be harvested both as tender baby greens and as mature leaves, which will be especially delicious after they have been sweetened by frost.

Lettuce For the most nutrition, grow deep green lettuce varieties like loose leaf and romaine. Choose heat-tolerant varieties for summer growing and cold-tolerant ones for spring and fall crops. Make successive sowings every few weeks for a season-long harvest. Pick the outer leaves, leaving the center leaves to grow, or cut plants about an inch from the ground, give the stumps a dose of soluble fertilizer, and enjoy a second harvest about a month later.

Mustard Greens These peppery greens are loaded with vitamins and antioxidants, making them one of the most healthful crops you can grow. Fast growing, mustard does well in cool weather but will also tolerate some heat. Make successive sowings so you have a continuous supply of tender leaves.

Oriental Greens Add variety to your garden and your table with a selection of Asian greens such as taht soi, mizuna, and pak choi. All are easy to grow and provide a quick harvest of tender leaves. While they are tolerant of cool weather, don't plant too early to avoid bolting. Sow directly in the garden 2-3 weeks before the last frost or about 6 weeks before your first fall frost date.

Spinach This crop is probably the one that comes to mind first when we think of nutritious greens -- we can thank Popeye for that! But when we eat it fresh from the garden instead of a can, it is tender and sweet as well as healthful. Spinach relishes cool weather, so sow seeds as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring. It also makes a great fall crop. Sow seeds directly in the garden about 6-8 weeks before the first fall frost date. If you're seeding in a cold frame or low tunnel, you can push your last sowing date up to a month later into the fall.

Swiss Chard While this beet relative thrives in the cool growing conditions of spring and fall, it is also tolerant of warmer weather, making it a good choice as a summer crop in many parts of the country. Seeds can be planted in the garden about a month before the last spring frost date.

Question of the Month: Controlling Spinach Leafminers

Q: Last season I looked forward eagerly to my spinach harvest. But many of the leaves were riddled with winding tunnels and large blotches with tiny worms inside them. What can I do to prevent problems next year?

A: Your spinach was infested with leafminers, a common pest on this crop as well as on its relatives, beets and Swiss chard. The little worms feeding inside the leaves are the larvae of a small fly. In spring the female fly lays her eggs on the leaves. The maggots that hatch out burrow in to feed between the upper and lower surfaces of the leaves, causing the winding tunnels and blotches you noticed. After feeding for a week or two, the maggots exit the leaves and change into the pupal, or resting stage, in the soil. A couple of weeks later, they emerge as adults to start the cycle again, overwintering as pupa in the soil at the end of the season. Covering your spinach at planting time with floating row covers or fine netting to exclude the flies from laying eggs is an easy and effective control. But it's important to couple this with crop rotation or else the overwintering adults will emerge beneath the covering to do their dirty work. Be sure the covering is well-anchored at its edges so flies can't sneak underneath, and keep the covering on until harvest time. If you notice any infested leaves, pick and destroy them right away, while the maggots are still inside, to short-circuit the pest's life cycle.

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