Mustard greens grow quickly and give salads a bright color and spicy flavor.
Ahh spring, when a young man's fancy turns to greens. Well, greens may not be the first thing on a young man's mind in spring, but they certainly are something my taste buds are craving. After a long winter of less-than-fresh vegetables, the thought of homegrown spinach, lettuce, mustard, and arugula makes my mouth water.
Although many culitvated greens can survive the cool temperatures of spring, the ones listed below are exceptional at germinating, growing, and maturing early. Plus, Mother Nature generously provides an array of wild greens. Adapted to the local weather, these are some of the first plants to pop up in spring. Some types of these wild greens adapt well to growing in the garden.
Here are some of my favorite early spring greens with tips on how to grow and harvest them.
Mizuna is a spring green with serrated leaves and a slight peppery flavor.
Arugula (Eruca sativa). This easy-to-grow green is known for its spicy, nutty taste. In just 20 days after sowing you can harvest the baby greens; for a full head wait another 10 to 15 days. Sow seeds as soon as the ground can be worked. Arugula can withstand a light frost and the flavor is mildest when the plant matures in cool weather. 'Astro' is more heat-tolerant than other varieties.
Chicory and endive (Cichorium endivia and Cichorum intybus). These European greens are known for their distinct flavor and texture. While you can grow them to full size in 60 to 100 days depending on the variety, you can harvest baby greens as soon as 45 days after seeding. Thin seedlings to 8 inches apart for full heads. 'Indigo' radicchio has burgundy leaves. 'Neos' endive produces self-blanched heads with a bittersweet flavor.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). Leaves of this wild green can be harvested in early spring from untreated lawns or pastures. Better yet, you can grow a crop of dandelions in your garden. This perennial produces an abundance of strap-like leaves that have a mild taste when harvested before the weather heats up. Use dandelion leaves in salad mixes or saute them with garlic, olive oil, and tomatoes for a sauce to dip with Italian bread. The French variety 'Ameliore' has larger, broader leaves and is more productive than wild dandelions.
Asian greens (Brassica rapa and Brassica junce). There are several Asian greens that grow quickly in spring and are great for salads and stir fries. 'Mizuna' produces low-growing heads of white-stemmed, deeply serrated leaves. 'Mibuna' has similar growth with spoon-shaped leaves. Tatsoi plants form a compact, thick rosette of leaves. Mustard greens, such as 'Osaka Purple' and 'Red Giant', produce 1- to 2-foot-tall plants with colorful, mild tasting leaves. Young leaves are good for salads, older leaves have a stronger flavor and are best for cooking.
Mache (Valerianella locusta). Mache or corn salad is a low-growing, European green that can be cultivated in gardens or harvested in the wild. It has spoon-shaped leaves with a mild, nutty taste that are ready to harvest 50 days after seeding. The leaves can take a freeze and still be edible. Mache can be used in salads or steamed like kale or collards. 'Vit' has long, oval, slightly mint-flavored leaves and grows well in most regions.
Mesclun mix. These mixes are usually a blend of lettuce, arugula, kale, Swiss chard, beet, and Asian greens. Depending on the blend, the mix may be mild or spicy. The beautiful part of mesclun mix is that you can sow seeds as soon as the ground can be worked, with the first harvest 30 days later. Because you begin harvest when the greens are 4 inches tall there's no need to thin the seedlings. Sow successive crops every few weeks to have a continual supply. Mild blends usually include lettuce, mizuna, tatsoi, kale, and mache. Tangy or spicy meclun mixes are a blend of sharper-flavored greens, such as arugula, endive, pac choi, and mustards.
Plant spinach under a grow tunnel for an early harvest during cool spring weather.
Lettuce (Latuca sativa). While there is a plethora of lettuce varieties on the market, some grow better than others in early spring since their seeds germinate in soils as cool as 40°F. Unless you're growing the lettuce as a mesclun mix, thin the seedlings when they have 3 or 4 leaves, spacing plants 6 to 10 inches apart. Start harvesting the outer leaves of loose-leaf varieties about 50 days after seeding. Try 'Little Gem' (early, small, 4-inch-diameter Romaine), 'Winter Density' (tall Buttercrunch-type that's frost tolerant) and 'Green Ice' (extra crisp, savoy leaves).
Spinach (Spinacia oleracea). Spinach is the classic cool-weather green, germinating in soils as cool as 35 degrees F. Once seedlings are 3 inches tall (20 to 30 days after seeding), thin the plants to space them 6 inches apart. plants. Plants mature 20 days later. Spinach comes in crinkled and smooth-leaved varieties. 'Tyee' is a one of the most bolt-resistant crinkled-leaved varieties. 'Olympia Hybrid' is a slow to bolt, disease-resistant, smooth-leaved variety.
Use a cold frame to start greens weeks before the garden is ready for planting to get a jump on the spring greens season.
Regardless of the greens you decide to grow, you'll need to build up the soil prior to planting. Since soils are still cool in early spring, as soon as the soil has dried out enough to work build a raised bed. Raised beds are a good choice on all but sandy soils. Build the raised bed 8 to 10 inches high and no more than 3 feet wide. Flatten off the top. Add a 1- to 2-inch-thick layer of finished compost to the bed before planting.
Sow greens in rows or broadcast the seeds over the top of the raised bed. Cover the small seeds with potting soil or sand so they can germinate easier. Cover the bed with a floating row cover to keep the soil warm, prevent insects from attacking and keep the bed moist. For all but mesclun greens, thin to the appropriate spacing.
If you're sowing successive crops on the same bed, amend the soil between plantings with a 1/2-inch thick layer of compost.
Chicory looks like a wild green, with thick leaves and a slightly bitter flavor. It makes a good addition to soups and salads.
If you really want to get a jump on the growing season, consider building a cold frame or grow tunnel. These structures allow the soil to warm up and dry out faster than normal, adding weeks to the early spring growing season. Place a cold frame in a protected location that faces Southeast or Southwest. Amend the soil inside the cold frame with compost as you would a raised bed and plant accordingly.
For a grow tunnel, once you've built and sown your raised bed install wire hoops and clear plastic to cover the bed. Vent the sides of the grow tunnel and open the cold frame on sunny days since the temperatures can rise quickly in spring.
Pests are rarely a problem in early spring plantings. However, if the weather is cool and wet, damping off fungal disease can ruin a young crop. To prevent damping off disease, grow crops on well-drained, light soil or cover the planting with a grow tunnel.
Harvest leaves of your greens as soon as they're at least 2 inches long. Pick individual leaves to create baby green salads or snip the young plants to the ground. Leave some plants, such as lettuce and spinach, to mature to full size for a larger harvest.