Cabbage Family Greens

By National Gardening Association Editors

These cabbage family greens make great additions to any salad garden.


Garden mustard isn't yellow and you don't spread it on the backside of a ham sandwich. It's leafy, curly, green and very nutritious.

Mustard planted in late summer, about eight weeks before the first fall frost date, is tops for a late harvest. Cold weather and light frosts improve mustard's flavor, just as cold weather does good things for the taste of collards and kale. If you live where the winters are mild, plant mustard in late summer, and you'll harvest greens through the fall and into winter since mustard is quite hardy.

Of course, you can plant mustard early each spring, too, two to four weeks before the last frost-free date. In as little as 30 days or so, you can be harvesting young leaves, or even the entire plant if you grow mustard in wide rows. 'Green Wave', 'Tendergreen' and 'Red Giant' varieties give excellent results. 'Green Wave' is peppery when raw, 'Tendergreen' has a nice mellow-green flavor when cooked and 'Red Giant' produces large reddish leaves.

Sow mustard seeds in rich, well-worked, fertilized soil. When the seedlings poke through the soil, thin them with a garden rake. After thinning, the plants should be four to six inches apart in the row. Start harvesting as soon as there is enough for a meal.

Collards - Headless Cabbages

Mild, cabbagy tasting collards are a traditional Southern crop, well adapted to the climate. Unlike most greens, they'll survive not only the cool spring and fall weather, but also the intense heat of summer.

Some gardeners in the South plant a spring crop, harvesting the lower leaves as they need them early in the season. Then they simply keep the plants growing through the hottest months, and begin harvesting again in the fall. It's much more common, though, to plant collards twice, in early spring and again in late summer.

In the South, collards are so widely grown that garden stores and nurseries provide young collard plants for sale at planting time. The four- to five-inch seedlings resemble cabbage plants, but unlike cabbage they'll never "head up" in the garden. Setting out these plants is a convenient and pretty reliable way to have a good harvest before hot weather slows things down.

Start collards indoors six to eight weeks before setting them out in the garden, which you can do as early as four weeks before the first frost-free date if plants are properly hardened off. If you plant collards in wide rows, thin them so that the plants will be eight to 10 inches apart.

Collards can also be direct seeded three to four weeks before the last frost-free date in spring. Fall plantings should go in 10 to 13 weeks before the first fall frost date. Cool fall nights and light freezes will put zing and succulence into the leaves.

Like other greens, you can start harvesting collards as soon as some of the leaves make enough for a meal. If you harvest only the bottom leaves of the plant, the center bud (where the action is) will keep putting out branches.

'Vates' and 'Champion' are good varieties for the home gardener. The former tolerates cold weather well, while the latter does well in the heat.


Kale used to be more popular in our country. Before the days of trucking lettuce thousands of miles to market, local growers provided some of the big Eastern city markets with fall, winter and early spring kale. It helped fill the need for fresh, nutritious greens.

Now kale is making a comeback. Kale is one of the very best greens if you're shopping for high vitamin and mineral content. It's sometimes called the "wonder crop" because its vitamin A and C content is so high. Kale even outranks orange juice in the vitamin C department. It is also loaded with cancer fighting chemicals.

Good taste goes hand in hand with its nutritional excellence. The leaves are tender and sweet tasting when harvested at the right time, which is after a couple of hard frosts in the fall. The leaves develop a tanginess that's hard to match. Don't stop harvesting when snow comes. The plants stay green and tasty - all you have to do is dig through the snow to get them.

Another peak harvesting period for kale is when the snow melts in the spring and the plants start growing again. The leaves are delicious raw, or you can cook them and use them like spinach.

Kale isn't a fussy plant. It simply needs well-fertilized, moist soil to get started. But like most cabbage family greens, after it comes up, you have to make sure it has enough moisture and you must thin the crop.

Kale doesn't like very hot weather - it's strictly a cool-season green.

For spring crops, plant as early as four to six weeks before the last frost. Plant again about 10 weeks before the expected date of the first fall frost for a late harvest. In the South you can plant kale later in the fall and enjoy fresh greens through the mild winter into spring.

A few weeks after planting, thin the plants so they're six to eight inches apart. Later, harvest entire plants to put a little more distance between the remaining plants and give them room to grow.

Don't worry about mulching kale as winter approaches. While cold weather does kill some of the plants, most survive and put on good growth the following spring. Well-drained soil is more important: It will prevent the plants from rotting in the early spring. Overwintered kale tastes good until the plants bolt with warm weather.

'Russian Red' and 'Blue Curled Scotch Vates' kale are the two common varieties. 'Russian Red' has a colorful red stem and red-tinged leaves, however, many people think that 'Blue Curled Scotch Vates' is the best-tasting variety. It also makes a nice houseplant in winter. Dig a couple plants up each fall, pot them and place them near a south-facing window. The plants lose some color, but the intricate shapes of the curled leaves are quite pleasing.

You might also try planting flowering ornamental varieties of kale, such as 'Red Peacock' and 'Tokyo Hybrid'. Their curly, green and maroon leaves are beautiful at the edge of the garden, and they also can be potted and brought indoors for the winter.

Other articles in this series:
1. Leaf Crop ABC's
2. The Wide World of Lettuce
3. Planning Your Greens Garden
4. Spinach Varieties
5. Preparing Soil for Greens
6. Growing Head Lettuce
7. Easy Cold Frames
8. Beets and Turnips
9. Cabbage Family Greens ← you're on this article right now
10. Celery Essentials
11. Lettuce Essentials
12. Spinach Essentials

This article is a part of our Vegetable Gardening Guide for Lettuce and Greens / Getting Started.

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